"Ethan Ballinger's 'Wish Upon A Falling Star' is the most interesting mandolin cd of the year to our ears." - Mandolin Cafe
"Ethan Ballinger is one of the brightest lights I have seen on the mandolin horizon in quite some time, he can play all the styles from Bluegrass to Classical. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for him." - Butch Baldassari
He played a toy banjo with Chet Atkins as a toddler and rubbed elbows in his youth with such music legends as Roy Acuff and John Hartford.
Now an up-and-coming musician in his own right, Ethan Ballinger has just completed an album of all original material called "Wish Upon A Falling Star."
"This album is something that I really loved doing, writing and creating and recording it," said Ballinger. "It’s one thing to compose and write but another thing to see it come to life. It’s something that I have to do one way or another."
Ballinger’s music, perhaps best labeled progressive acoustic, is not the bluegrass music one might expect from the son of Kris and Dale Ballinger, who have played in Carnegie Hall and on "Austin City Limits" as members of the famed bluegrass group The Cluster Pluckers.
"My songs are kind of weird instrumental stuff, everything from electronic to ambient, electric to acoustic," said Ballinger.
While there are definite bluegrass influences in his music, his songs also feature everything from tranquil, jazzy beats to Eastern sounds.
"I got into this electric mandolin Indian slide player, Upalappu Srinivas," said Ballinger. "I really loved the sound of that, and a couple of his recordings really had a strong impression on me. I’ve always been a big fan of the tabla, an eastern drum instrument."
He looked up tabla player Pat Richey of Cookeville and enlisted him to play the exotic instrument on six of the CD’s tracks.
"He’s phenomenal. For years I’ve been daydreaming about getting him to play on some stuff and thought that would be a really cool sound," said Ballinger. "I wanted to add something to my music and hopefully create something new out of it."
In addition to Richey, Ballinger tapped the talents of Lee Holland on drums; Missy Raines, seven-time International Bluegrass Music Assocation Bass Player of the Year; Matt Flinner, one of Ballinger’s musical heroes, on banjo and harmony mandolin; and bassist Rich Brinsfield. The album was recorded at Slack-Key Studio by Randy Kohrs and Mike Latterral.
Ballinger wrote each of the album’s 16 songs.
"I write all in my head or on the instrument; I never write anything out notation-wise," said Ballinger. "If I’m afraid I won’t remember it, I’ll call myself and play it into the phone and leave a message. I’m sure that’s frustrating for the musicians to have to learn everything by ear, but it’s a tribute to how great they all are that they can just pick it all up."
While Ballinger has always been interested in music, he didn’t always follow his parents’ lead. He was enrolled in violin lessons when he was a toddler and then in piano lessons, which he says he hated.
"And then I kind of went through some rebellious years and really fell in love with the electric guitar and for many years was playing in rock bands and kind of rejected what my parents were doing because I didn’t think it was cool," said Ballinger.
But it wasn’t long before he came around to acoustic and traditional music.
"Eventually I stole my mom’s mandolin and learned to play that, and I really started to love acoustic music and started stealing all their albums, and we eventually started playing together, but I had to come to it on my own," said Ballinger.
A senior commercial music major at Belmont University, he now plays mandolin in the band Missy Raines & The New Hip and also in a family band that includes his parents and himself. And he wishes he had been old enough to appreciate the legends he grew up with.
"I got to be around a lot of really amazing people," said Ballinger. "I would give anything to be able to go back and meet them again and really understand what it means to be around people like that. But that’s not to say I haven’t met many other amazing people through them, and I still continue to."
"Wish Upon A Falling Star" is now avaiable in both physical and digital formats.
By MARGARET SHUSTER