2016 No. 1s: How Kelsea Ballerini Made History for Women In Country

David McClister
Duane Clark [business manager], John Huie [agent], Fletcher Foster ­[manager], Ballerini, Gordon Kerr [CEO, Black River Entertainment], Celia Froehlig [vp ­publishing Black River photographed on Nov. 8 at May Hosiery Co-Op in Nashville.

“Dibs” -- Country Airplay (1 week)
“Peter Pan” -- Hot Country Songs (2 weeks), Country Airplay (1 week)


It was an enormous deal in 2015 when Kelsea Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It” broke a decade-long drought between female solo artists topping the Country Airplay chart with their debut singles. But the real test was how the 23-year-old would follow that initial hit. By September 2016, she had notched two more No. 1s -- the teasing, beat-driven “Dibs” and the glossy goodbye ballad “Peter Pan” -- becoming the first female artist to go three in a row out of the gate in a quarter century and the only woman who has ever topped the Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts simultaneously. Ballerini’s success certainly can’t be chalked up to high-profile co-signs. Her 2015 album, The First Time, featured zero big-name collaborators and was the biggest breakthrough to date for indie upstart Black River Entertainment. “I made this record with my friends,” says Ballerini, who on Dec. 6 received her first Grammy nomination. “We were all extremely naive, extremely green.”

FLETCHER FOSTER (manager):
Every odd was against us. I mean, she’s a female on an independent label, with a producer who had never produced a record before, with songwriters who had never had a cut before. There was nothing that said this was going to be automatic.

BALLERINI:
You would turn the radio on, and there were a lot of guys talking about getting girls. I wanted to be the girl that talks about getting a guy. I felt like that was a different approach to writing.

CELIA FROEHLIG (vp ­publishing Black River Entertainment​):
Being open to new [talent], that’s huge ... The team did something that was fresh and unique, because they didn’t know they couldn’t do this and they couldn’t do that -- and they were allowed to do it.

GORDON KERR (CEO, Black River Entertainment):
When I got the call that “Peter Pan” was going to No. 1, ironically I was at Disney World -- at the Peter Pan ride. It’s a pretty neat experience when you can be standing in front of that and be able to call Kelsea and say, “You now have made history.”

Kelsea Ballerini remembers celebrating "Dibs" going No. 1 with Hunter Hayes and "30 of her closest friends."

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.

Billboard Year in Music 2016