Kelsea Ballerini First Female To Lead Country Airplay Chart With Debut Single Since 2006

Joseph Llanes
Kelsea Ballerini photographed at CMA Fest in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Kelsea Ballerini scores the first debut No. 1 by a woman on Billboard's Country Airplay chart (dated July 4) in more than nine years, as "Love Me Like You Mean It" (Black River) rises 2-1 in its 38th week. The song tops the chart as the Greatest Gainer with a 12 percent increase to 47.1 million audience impressions in the week ending June 21, according to Nielsen Music.

"Love" marks the first career-opening Country Airplay No. 1 by a female artist since Carrie Underwood arrived with her first single officially promoted to country radio, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," which began a six-week reign on the chart dated Jan. 21, 2006. (Underwood had first charted two non-promoted entries that failed to rise higher than No. 50 on the Country Airplay chart in the wake of her winning the 2005 season of Fox's American Idol.)

"I've been writing songs since I was 12 years old, and so many times throughout this journey I've wondered if I was good at it or if this is what I was supposed to do," Ballerini tells Billboard exclusively. "To see it work, and as early like it has, is so reassuring that this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm so thankful that radio has given me a chance. It is incredibly humbling."

Having "Love" reach No. 1 "is a culmination of so many people's outstanding efforts," adds Black River CEO Gordon Kerr. Like Ballerini, Black River celebrates its first Country Airplay No. 1. "It's a huge day for us as an independent record label. I'm incredibly proud of Kelsea. So many people have embraced us and even gone out on a limb to support us. I'm thankful they took a chance on a new artist, and I'm glad that we've proven that to be a good risk."

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

Here's a look at the elite women to take a debut country single to No. 1 (as a lead artist) on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, dating to the tally's Jan. 20, 1990 launch: "Love Me Like You Mean It," Ballerini, July 4, 2015 (one week to date); "Jesus, Take the Wheel," Underwood, Jan. 21, 2006 (six); "Redneck Woman," Gretchen Wilson, May 29, 2004 (five); "What I Really Meant to Say," Cyndi Thompson, Sept. 22, 2001 (three); "There Is No Arizona," Jamie O'Neal, Feb. 17, 2001 (one); "Strawberry Wine," Deana Carter, Nov. 23, 1996 (two); "Wild One," Faith Hill, Jan. 1, 1994 (four); "She Is His Only Need," Wynonna, April 11, 1992 (one; her first solo single apart from The Judds); and "She's in Love With the Boy," Trisha Yearwood, Aug. 3, 1991 (two).

Notably, Ballerini's "Love" is the first debut No. 1 by a woman (as a lead) on an independent label. It's the first leader by a woman on an indie at all since Taylor Swift ruled with "Ours," on Big Machine, on the March 31, 2012 chart. As previously reported, as "Love" was scaling the Country Airplay's top 30, it received a high-profile push from Swift, who endorsed it on Twitter on March 9.

More superlatives surrounding Ballerini's debut Country Airplay No. 1: It marks the first No. 1 by a woman in a lead role since Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert's "We Were Us" topped the Dec. 7, 2013 chart. It's the first No. 1 by a female unaccompanied by a male artist since  Underwood's "Blown Away" stormed to No. 1 for two weeks beginning Oct. 27, 2012.

Ballerini's "Love" also completes the steadiest trip to No. 1 on Country Airplay for a song by a woman with lead billing. It passes the 35-week ascent of Underwood's "Before He Cheats" (Nov. 11, 2006).

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