Kelsea Ballerini: 'It's All About the Song, Not the Gender'

David McClister
Kelsea Ballerini photographed on June 30, 2015 at Sinema at the Melrose Theater Building in Nashville.

When Kelsea Ballerini received the news that her launch single, "Love Me Like You Mean It," had risen 2-1 in its 38th week on Billboard's Country Airplay chart (dated July 4), it was understandably emotional for her. "I remember I was getting ready to do a show for a radio station and had to stop what I was doing. I just started bawling," Ballerini tells Billboard.

Fast forward to the present, and Ballerini receives more good news: The 22-year-old native of Mascot, Tenn., who co-wrote her debut smash, has just been named Billboard's Top New Country Artist of 2015. "It's just incredible," she says. "When I did my initial radio tour, [programmers] had no idea who I was, but they were still great to me. The fact that they embraced my music and the listeners responded is so gratifying."

When the track landed at No. 1, "Love," the No. 36 title of 2015 on Country Airplay and the No. 27 hit of the year on Hot Country Songs, ended a long dry spell for No. 1s by female solo acts. In fact, it was the longest drought in the former chart's 25-year history: Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" had been the last such leader, in October 2012. It had been even longer since a solo female made a No. 1 debut: nine years since Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel" began a six-week reign in January 2006. Still, Ballerini wasn't fazed. "I really didn't even think about that aspect," she remembers. "I just thought I'd give them a great song. In my opinion, it's all about the song and the performance, not the gender."

Watch Kelsea Ballerini's Full 'Love Me Like You Mean It' Performance From Billboard Women in Music 2015

Radio programmers recognized the young artist's ability — and personality — from the start. "The first time I saw Kelsea, ["Love"] had just embarked on the charts," says WJVC Nassau, N.Y., program director Phathead. "But you could tell that she was a star as soon as she opened her mouth. There are a lot of great qualities that she embodies, and there's definitely a likeness to Taylor Swift. That's a good thing."

"Kelsea's talent and vibe as a performer are seasoned beyond her years," echoes WXTU Philadelphia PD Shelly Easton. "Couple that old-soul quality with her ability to deliver music through her own life experience, and it really resonates with 18- to 34-year-old female listeners."

Says programming consultant Joel Raab of Ballerini, "First of all, she can actually sing. She's got a great voice, has a lot of captivating stage presence and a lot of depth. Really, she's the whole package."

When Ballerini signed to Black River Entertainment in 2013, she initially joined as a songwriter. As the story goes, Ballerini walked into CEO Gordon Kerr's office with an acoustic guitar in hand and said, "Hi, I'm Kelsea. Can I play you some songs?"

Kelsea Ballerini Accepts Rising Star Honor at Billboard Women in Music 2015

"I knew she had amazing talent," Kerr tells Billboard. "We wanted to nurture her and see where it went. She told me every time I saw her that she wanted to be signed as an artist. It was all about timing." Ballerini was introduced to the industry at the Black River luncheon during the 2014 Country Radio Seminar. "When she performed ["Love"], it was a totally unfamiliar song and no one knew Kelsea yet, but it was just one of those moments where everyone knew immediately that she was something special," recalls Kerr.

Ballerini's inaugural LP, The First Time (which features "Love"), debuted at No. 4 on Top Country Albums in June. Second single "Dibs," which Ballerini also co-wrote, rises 14-12 on Country Airplay (dated Jan. 2). On Dec. 11, she was honored as Rising Star at Billboard's 2015 Women in Music celebration. Ballerini says that she has two tours lined up for 2016, both in opening roles for as-yet-unnamed major artists. She is also ready to record newly written songs, reflecting that her rise as an artist hasn't halted her original Black River role. "I'm basically always writing," she says. "Why wouldn't I? I love it."

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