“People, they don’t change.”
Artist Scott Ballew proclaims as the first line of the first song of his junior album, Rio Bravo—an unexpected remark from a man whose life has been punctuated by personal evolution. A reductive synopsis would be as follows: Texas football star turned film director turned junkie turned musician. Austin-born Ballew’s story is so compelling that a mini-doc was created in 2023 to chronicle his enticing metamorphosis.
His resume is staggering, from his work as Yeti’s Head of Content, directing shorts featuring Ryan Bingham, J.B. Mauney, and Margo Price, to more recent independent ventures, including a documentary on Terry Allen and a film, All That is Sacred, chronicling the hazy creative stratosphere of Key West in the 70s. The latter is a glimpse of the lives of American literary giants Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison and superstar Jimmy Buffett. A true artistic visionary, Ballew’s latest endeavor is a near-obsessive pursuit of quality songwriting, a skill that landed him on La Honda Records' coveted roster.
When asked to share his personal history, Ballew good-naturedly balks. “None of my story is particularly interesting to me, but I will tell you everything.” He generously shares both the points of pride and pain. From a drug and alcohol addiction that quietly consumed over a decade of his life, to suicidal thoughts, and most recently to his father’s encephalitis, a condition that robbed 80% of his memory and almost claimed his life.
Conversations with Ballew are peppered with self-depreciation, snippets of philosophy (Seneca), poetry, and humor. He is an enlightened mind that still knows how to have fun. Playful but still tasteful–photos show him donning stunning embroidered western suits, baseball uniforms, casual surf wear, and working cowboy clothes. He’s comfortable in a lot of hats, but has reverence for each and every one of them. “I’ve spent time with some of the best hands and have been on the biggest ranches. We’ve done films on Derek Begay, the best team roper of all time. I can get on a horse and have fun. But I’m a city kid who goes around barefoot listening to Bob Dylan. I couldn’t be more out of place on a working ranch, especially in the winter. I’d rather play guitar or piano than freeze my balls off and try to move cattle.”
Ballew’s perspective is refreshing, a consequence of experience and exposure to people who excel in their fields. After an introduction to Terry Allen by mutual friend Ryan Bingham, Ballew’s approach to art (and life) was drastically altered. Specifically, Allen’s daily morning ritual of creating something artistic, be it a sculpture, painting, poem, or a play. The drive wasn’t to manipulate something into potential commercial success but to create something personal. “[What Terry taught me is that] the audience is irrelevant. What’s important is that you wake up and you show up and you follow whatever it is that’s in your head or your heart.”
For Ballew, songwriting was a necessity. As a sober 37-year-old, he began to write. “This came to me later in life. I have four decades of experiences, anxieties, and thoughts that I am purging. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I don’t get hungover. I don’t have kids or a wife at the moment. I have a lot of time and energy to burn, and I’ve found that idle time is not healthy for me. Writing is a survival mechanism.” Sonically, his music–specifically Rio Bravo–is if Townes Van Zandt was produced by Ennio Morricone. Ballew’s writing is a world of contrasts–poignant but humorous, relatable but cerebral, simple but cinematic. “If you can make someone laugh and cry in the same paragraph, there’s no closer reflection to real life.”
With a life punctuated by moments of deep isolation, songwriting has been Ballew’s balm. Admittedly, it comes with self-indulgent moments but has the ability to give relief and create community with others. For Ballew, the most validating moment to date was when he was approached by a young woman who became sober after watching his film and then carried that momentum by listening to his songs. “Music can feel frivolous and silly and narcissistic at times–but I think at the most fundamental and noble level of a song, the intention is to make someone else not feel alone. Whether it be losing parents, addiction, or heartbreak, making someone not feel alone is the greatest thing a song or any art has to offer.”