Billboard Women in Music 'Rising Star' Kelsea Ballerini: 'A Women Era Is Starting' in Country

David McClister
Kelsea Ballerini photographed on June 30 at Sinema in Nashville. 

Kelsea Ballerini hails from Mascot, Tenn. ­(population: 2,400), less than 200 miles from Nashville, but it seems like she has come a lot further in her 22 years. The singer-songwriter (she wrote or co-wrote every track on her debut album, 2015's The First Time) is the first female solo country artist to hit No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart with a debut single ("Love Me Like You Mean It") since Carrie Underwood in 2009, and only the 11th in history to manage the feat. But even with her ­stratospheric ascent in 2015 -- she ranks the year a "250" on a scale from 1 to 10 -- Ballerini says she struggles to be taken seriously as a female artist, especially in the time of "Tomato-gate." (In May, an industry consultant described women as merely the "tomatoes" in ­country radio's proverbial salad.) But the adversity is just fuel for the fire, she says: "I still have a lot to prove, which is a good thing."


Women In Music 2015: The Billboard Shoot

Befriending Her Idols...
"I went to my first CMA Music Fest when I was 14 and waited in line for two hours to meet two people: Taylor Swift and Hillary Scott from Lady Antebellum. It's very ironic, but not accidental that those two people refer to me as their 'little sister' now."

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...And Possibly Creeping Them Out
"At the American Country Countdown Awards, I walked out to Kelly Clarkson's tour bus and knocked on her door, like a complete creeper. I was like, 'I went to your concert when I was 14. You had these two screens of your eyes onstage, they winked, and you told me in that moment I was ­supposed to be artist.' She was like, 'Uh...' She was so kind though."

In: 'Bra Country.' Out: 'Bro Country'
"Right now is such an awesome time to be a girl in country music. There's this huge wave of us, with Cam, Mickey Guyton and Maddie & Tae. I am not anti 'bro country,' but a women era is starting -- Sara Evans called it 'bra country.'"

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2015 Highlights
Reached No. 4 on the Top Country Albums chart with The First Time
Nominated for two Country Music Association Awards and a CMT Music Award
Adopted Dibs, a labradoodle named for her second single: "He's painfully adorable. It's killing me"

2015 Billboard Women in Music

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Billboard.