Kelsea Ballerini's Road to the Grammys: How Her Team Changed the Narrative From Cuteness to Cred

Kelsea Ballerini photographed on Nov. 8, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.
David McClister

Kelsea Ballerini photographed on Nov. 8, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

The country freshman's manager & label timed Ballerini's "Peter Pan" single just right to boost her songwriting reputation at a time when awards nominations depended on it.

?Among this year’s five nominees for the best new artist Grammy, freshly minted country star Kelsea Ballerini has more measurable success going into the ceremony than any of her competitors except The Chainsmokers -- including a gold album, three straight No. 1 Country Airplay singles, an ACM Award and a stint co-hosting a prime-time TV series.

Yet it was by no means assured that she’d get a nomination in a year with such tough competition for those slots, especially facing off against another popular country female newcomer, Maren Morris (who also ultimately made the final five), and being on an independent label, Black River, with little clout to throw around outside of Ballerini’s own breakout story.

This is actually the third year Ballerini could have been eligible in the new artist category. It would have been highly unlikely she’d have made it in two years ago, when all she had out was the now-platinum “Love Me Like You Mean it” single. She still missed the cut last year, after the May 2015 release of her debut album, The First Time. There was no telling whether the Recording Academy would have considered her too established next year, by which time she’ll have a sophomore album out. The 2017 awards were when her team knew they had their best shot at getting her Grammy glory -- and a plan aimed at boosting her credibility in the eyes of the music industry paid off with that key nomination and, maybe just as importantly, the telecast performing slot that comes with it.

“It’s truly been about letting the world know who she is,” says Doug Johnson, Black River’s VP of A&R -- and, especially in the Grammy world, “about her songwriting, which is completely legitimate.”

“When you look at what the Grammy process is supposed to be built upon,” says her manager, Fletcher Foster, “it’s the integrity of the music. We all know it’s very challenging to take away the commercial or press success or touring or TV-Q and get people to just sit down and listen to this record and judge it on its own. So one of my goals a year ago was to try to build that part of the story where people were aware she was a writer on every song on this record.”

Ironically, the very charm that helped boost Ballerini to the top in the country world was something that Foster fretted might work against her, if it masked the fact that she was integrally involved in the creation of her own music, something that not everyone takes as a given nowadays. So a narrative was built, not entirely but at least partially with awards attention in mind.

“What happened so early out of the box was that this cute young girl walking the red carpet became a bigger story, and it could have felt like she was just somebody who sang other people’s songs,” says Foster. “I mean, when she got her publishing deal [in early 2013], she had hundreds of songs that she brought into the deal, and when I say hundreds, I’m not joking about that number. And when she’s here [in Nashville], she’s writing one or two times a day. If you talk to her about it, she’s very happy to know that if a career [as a recording artist] were ever to dry up, songwriting is something she’ll always still be able to do in addition to being able to perform.”

So, says Foster, “a lot of what we did was making sure the interviews that we set up gave her have that opportunity to talk about it, finding that story and trying to be consistent in changing the conversation that way. And putting her in situations -- she sang at the ASCAP Awards and presented at the SESAC Awards during CMA week (in Nashville) -- those kinds of things where she is around other writers in the community, who have their own way of communicating. A lot of the higher profile songwriters in Nashville weren’t involved in that first record and didn’t know, if they got her in the room, if she’d be a pretty girl that was just sitting there, or if she really contributed” -- a situation rectified over the last year as Ballerini has met with Music City’s top writers for an in-progress sophomore album, leading to an insider buzz “that spreads within the creative community very organically.”

Even the choice of singles off the debut album was strategically designed at giving her some kind of singer/songwriter bona fides right at the moment when she might need them. The first single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” had more to do with the good-time riffage and groove than any window into the soul. The second radio pick, “Dibs,” was also slightly toward the fluffier side, “because with a second single, the goal was not to quickly turn too left or right. We wanted to be able to stay in that vein that the fans as well as radio had gotten accustomed to -- knowing that we all felt that that ‘Peter Pan’ was the song that was really going to give us more credibility.” That one, too, went to the top on Country Airplay, setting a record for successive No. 1s by a freshman female in country… allowing Ballerini plenty of media time to talk about the song’s more sensitive themes just as the 2017 Grammy process was getting in gear. “That was the compelling story for me last year, telling that story of her as more of an artist, and trying to lead into a best new artist nomination, because ‘Peter Pan’ was the type of song that would get us there.”

Being on an indie label is not always a detriment on the way to the Grammys -- it didn’t hurt fellow new artist nominee Anderson Paak, either -- but Black River Entertainment had some overcoming to do on the way to getting Ballerini in front of a quorum of country fans, much less Grammy voters.

Black River is now seven years old. “We’re still in elementary school,” jokes CEO Gordon Kerr. Says the label’s executive vice president, Rick Froio, “the industry really embraced us as a major player, even though we had [just] one really giant artist. We may be the new kid on the block, but we approached our revenue plans with our digital partners, physical partners, and brand partnerships very aggressively and walked in like we owned the place. Kelsea is a major star whether she’s on a giant label or small label.”

Black River has funding like few other indie labels in history: It’s owned by the multi-billionaire Pegula family, which owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, as well as real estate and natural gas holdings. It’s natural to think that a label with that much cash on hand had an unfair advantage in breaking Ballerini, but the lie is put to that by the string of non-successes that Black River had before she came along. “It costs a lot of money just to sit at the table and play. But you have to have the right artist,” says Mike Wilson, the senior VP of promotion. “You can look at the guys that are well funded that have come [to Nashville] and lasted 12-18 months and walked away minus $5-10 million. I’m not picking on those guys, because I worked for a couple of ‘em. But they think they’ve got the next Taylor Swift or the next Kelsea, and they throw money at it, but they don’t know where or how to spend, or that what they really need is the music.”

For all that funding, Black River has tried to maintain an aura of Nashville informality. “Part of it is the environment that Gordon has built here,” says Johnson, “where we have a campus that has all things music, from the publishing to the studios.” Black River owns two recording studios -- one on the premises, another one Ronnie Milsap’s former studio -- and found additional success with a publishing company that struck gold with hit writer Josh Osborne. “Kelsea has that hang factor -- you want to hang with her -- and there’s been a place built over here that you want to come hang.” Ballerini quickly made the transition from publishing signing to artist signing over the course of 2013, “and that’s how we found Jacob Davis, who was hanging writing here.” (Davis is the new signing they’re soon to make the company’s big post-Ballerini push.)

As her manager, Foster had a checklist of reasons why Ballerini might not click, her unproven indie label being just one of them. “When you looked at the timing,” he says, “OK, female singers aren’t happening in country -- check one. This is a little tiny label that hasn’t had success -- check two. Kelsea couldn’t get name writers to write with her, because she was a female singer on an independent label -- check three. The guy that ended up producing the record had never produced a record before -- check four. There was nothing about this project that made it believable that this could work, other than Kelsea being as engaging and feeling like a star.”

Ultimately, the gender disparity worked in Ballerini’s favor as much as it worked in the disfavor of the dozen would-be Next Taylor Swifts that immediately preceded her, Foster feels. “There weren’t any females that were happening in our format other than Carrie (Underwood) and Miranda (Lambert), and they had been around for so long, so at some point something’s gotta break,” says the manager. “It’s kind of the story of the Dixie Chicks (in the ‘90s): At some point something different is going to come into the landscape, and when it does, it pops really, really big. We were able to really take advantage of being the female that works amid a very crowded male format.” That helped in landing Ballerini more nominations for the Country Music Association Awards than just new artist. With five slots open for Best Female Vocalist and only two “evergreen” women in the format, Ballerini easily got into that non-freshman category, too, further raising her profile.

Ballerini hasn’t had any pop crossover success, because, for one thing, she hasn’t been pushed there, at all — a point of contention or curiosity among those who think that “Peter Pan” could have been a big AC hit. Unlike Big Machine, which had a setup with Universal’s Republic division that allowed Taylor Swift to quickly cross over, Black River, which is distributed by Sony RED, doesn’t have that kind of relationship with a pop label.

But she did have one specific outlet for crossover, albeit among kids. “Radio Disney was very early on,” says Foster, “and they go through a life cycle of a record much faster than country radio. Through that that there was a group of more pop-oriented artists that were aware of her music. Nick Jonas came and played guitar when she was on the ACMs last year. When she played the Roxy, Tori Kelly came out as special guest. When she did CMT Artists of the Year, she sang with Meghan Trainor and Jill Scott. Because of Radio Disney, that translated into the more mainstream, non-country-radio consumer being aware of who she was,” as well as those marquee influencers. It’s not having a Mainstream Top 40 topper, but it may mean something among Grammy voters who are parents with that particular preset.

Then, last summer, she got a gig on ABC’s limited Greatest Hits series, which paired artists from the ‘80s and ‘90s with current hitmakers, co-hosting with Arsenio Hall. Ratings weren’t great -- two of the six Thursdays coincided with the climaxes of the national political conventions, unluckily -- but it was still seen by millions of non-country fans. Perhaps even more importantly for her Grammy chances, she got to meet dozens of big music names that passed through the show… and to spend five weeks working with executive producer Ken Ehrlich and his team, who also happen to produce the Grammys.

She’ll be performing with Lukas Graham on Sunday night’s telecast. “Whether we win or lose,” says Foster, “if her performance comes through and it becomes hopefully great water cooler talk the next morning, we hope to have the first single from her next album out quickly after ‘Yeah Boy,’ the fourth single off this record, peaks.” (The full sophomore album is in progress and tentatively slated for this fall.) Adds Kerr, “Is it our hope that she wins? That’d be awesome for her. But we take amazing pride that she will carry ‘Grammy-nominated artist’ as a part of who she is.”

2017 Grammys