You wouldn’t know that Kelsea Ballerini is jet-lagged. The 23-year-old country-pop star and best new artist nominee -- who just returned from a vacation with her new fiance, country singer Morgan Evans, in his native Australia -- strides into an open-air bar in East Nashville with a coltish energy that betrays the decade of dance lessons she took growing up in Knoxville, Tenn. Ballerini even spent the flight home picking apart tracks from her sophomore album-in-progress, the follow-up to 2015’s effervescent The First Time, written and recorded with collaborators as green as she was and released on a 5-year-old indie label, Black River Entertainment.
Ballerini says she “popped out of nowhere,” but there are clear parallels to her friend Taylor Swift’s ascent nearly a decade ago. This time, country radio knew better than to underestimate a driven young female songwriter who presents her pop-schooled songs like diary entries. Ballerini’s first three singles, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan,” were all Country Airplay No. 1s. “She’s on fire right now,” says Jason Aldean, who invited Ballerini to duet on his 2016 song “First Time Again.” “She just has this really cool voice.”