Kelsea Ballerini, Taylor Swift-Inspired Rising Star of Nashville, Leads a New Female Vanguard

Jeremy Ryan
Kelsea Ballerini

Taylor Swift may have left the country fold for the time being to pursue pop, but her influence on the genre is still being felt in the guise of Kelsea Ballerini, a Black River artist who at age 21 has her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” knocking on the door of country’s top 10. The song, which leans on hip-hop vocal phrasing and synthetic percussion sounds, is not just a personal career breakthrough. It also makes her the first solo female to reach that level in several years, following a much-publicized roadblock at radio that disproportionately favored men.

That barrier has been in the foreground for every female act that’s dared take its first footsteps during the period.

“I was always aware of kind of where women were at, or the lack of [female voices], but for me I always try to focus on what I was doing,” Ballerini says. “I just wanted to make good music, and I prayed and hoped that it would work.”

A May 12 headlining date at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley, a show that’s part of the CMT Next Women of Country Tour, underscored just how well it’s working. When Ballerini launched into “Love Me Like You Mean It,” the audience on the floor of the club sang along so boisterously that she turned the mic on them and allowed them to belt out the entire first verse unaided. It was the first time she’d had that experience, though it may not be the last.

“I had to put my head down because I was gonna start bawling,” Ballerini says.

Her admission of that kind of emotion should not be construed as weakness. Nor as the signature response of a simpleton. Her debut album -- The First Time, released May 18 -- is propelled by a breezy pop undercurrent, but many of those easy-going textures are accompanied by shrewd observations. There’s plenty of clever wordplay from the outset, as the opening track “XO” reinterprets hugs-and-kisses shorthand as an expression of romantic frustration: “You’re still in love with your ex, oh.” “Stilettos” takes a Swift-like approach to lyrics, using pretty-but-painful high heels as a symbol for strong female character. And “Square Pegs” offers encouragement to anyone whose motivations have felt out of step with culture: “Square pegs,” the song suggests, “make the world go ‘round.”

Ballerini understands the concept well.

“I never really did fit in,” she says. “I always kind of knew the cool kids and was friends with a couple of them, but I never really had that group [of friends] throughout my whole life until college.”

If that sounds somewhat Swift-like, it’s appropriate, because she became an icon for Ballerini during those formative teen years. When she was 12, Ballerini’s parents divorced. Leading up to that event, her mother and father barely communicated. If they did, it likely erupted into loud arguments. Ballerini discovered songwriting as an emotional valve -- she wrote her first song the same month Swift’s first album was released -- and “Secondhand Smoke,” song No. 8 on The First Time, documents the trauma Ballerini had to overcome.

“I just remember feeling so confused and so alone,” she says. “My biggest question was, ‘If this is all that I know, does that mean I'm going to be the same?’ For me, to even write this song was so difficult, and to put it out was even more difficult because I feel like it’s just a very bare and vulnerable song. But I want a 13-year-old girl who’s experiencing that same thing right now to hear that song and know that the answer is ‘no.’ I will probably never sing it live -- I can’t quite yet -- but I just want that voice to be there for somebody.”

The question, and Ballerini’s method of dealing with it, are both impressively mature for a 13-year-old. She similarly demonstrated some insightfulness when she moved to Nashville with her mother at age 15. Ballerini discovered when she arrived in Music City that she wasn’t alone in her dream. And she was developed enough to recognize the dilemma that created for decision-makers.

“It felt like there was a memo sent out to every young, blonde singer/songwriter in America that said, ‘If you want to be a country singer, move to Nashville,’ because there were so many of us,” she recalls. “I felt like there was this tone of [executives] being ‘over’ it, so I didn’t want to push it.”

Instead of cold-calling, she researched names on Music Row and got them to follow her on Facebook. She posted music online and used social media to draw attention, then waited for music executives to notice. She already had 250 songs written when Black River vp of publishing Celia Froehlig signed Ballerini, then 19, to her first songwriting deal. Froehlig encouraged Ballerini to co-write with established songwriters in town, and Ballerini meanwhile started working as an artist with producer/musician Forest Glen Whitehead.

In yet another sign of maturity, Ballerini didn’t relinquish all of her control when Black River CEO Gordon Kerr and vp of A&R Doug Johnson offered her a record deal in December 2013. She insisted that Whitehead and fellow musician Jason Massey produce the album, and Ballerini was mildly surprised when Black River agreed.

“It was a risk to even sign a new artist,” she notes, “but to sign a new female and trust her enough to pick her own producers is a really big deal. I'm very, very thankful to them for that.”

As the bro-country movement wanes and women begin to show a resurgence, Ballerini is perhaps the perfect bridge into this new era. Those Whitehead-produced tracks mix some of the same sonic elements -- loops, computerized sound and programmed drums -- as the bro-country product. She’s drawing from the same era, as demonstrated in that 3rd & Lindsley concert, where she featured a medley of new-millennium pop (Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child) from her single-digit years to the obvious Swift influence of her teens.

Songwriting, the activity Ballerini found to ease her through those earlier years, has begun to connect her to a wider audience, as evidenced by the vociferous 3rd & Lindsley response to “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Her relationships have strengthened with both of her parents -- “They’re awesome separately,” Ballerini says -- and her dad is particularly responsive to the song that’s perhaps reopening doors for new women on country airwaves.

“He calls me every single time he hears my song on the radio,” Ballerini says.

With “Love Me Like You Mean It” generating enough spins to loft it to No. 11 on Country Airplay, that’s a lot of phone calls. With the door open and some solid music in the pipeline, she has built-in excuses for contact with dad for years.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.