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

Kelsea Ballerini photographed on June 30 at Sinema in Nashville.
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.'"

Women In Music 2015: The 50 Most Powerful Executives in the Industry

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.

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