When the phone rang, Kelsea Ballerini braced herself for the news. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter was awaiting word from her label about her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” which appeared to be headed to the top of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
“We knew the call was going to be either, ‘We didn’t make it’ or ‘You have a No. 1,’ ” recalls Ballerini, perching her tall, lanky frame on a restaurant couch in Nashville before a Make-A-Wish meet-and-greet with the effervescent energy of a newly minted star. “I mentally prepared for both, so I didn’t think I was going to get emotional. But the words ‘You have a No. 1’ coming out of someone’s mouth? That’s, like, a thing.” As seen in a touching YouTube video, she murmurs, “I’m going to cry,” before breaking into joyous tears.
Ballerini is just the 11th female country solo act ever to top the chart with her debut single; the last to do so was none other than big-as-they-come superstar Carrie Underwood, with “Jesus, Take the Wheel” in 2006. Country radio’s drought of female hit makers has been an especially hot topic in the wake of what has been dubbed Tomato-gate: In a May interview gone viral, a radio consultant described female acts as “tomatoes” garnishing what should, for the sake of country stations’ ratings, he said, remain a predominately male salad. In this charged environment, Ballerini can’t help but marvel at the success of the laid-back, teasingly delivered “Love Me Like You Mean It,” from her debut album, The First Time, released in May (38,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen Music). “It wasn’t supposed to work — being a new artist, a female artist, an artist on an independent,” she says. “That’s what made it so much sweeter when we hit No. 1.”
Ballerini included earning a No. 1 record on a list of professional goals she started when she moved to Nashville at age 15 with her mom (who then worked in marketing at a religious publishing house), hustling meetings with songwriters, publishers and labels in between high school, babysitting and bakery jobs, and a few semesters at Lipscomb University. “I was this little blond girl with a guitar case bigger than me — it was pink and sparkly at the time. But I always took myself seriously, and I think that people took that seriously,” says Ballerini. “I would tell them about my goal list and they listened. I was like, ‘I want to be the one that swings the pendulum.’ ”
Ballerini’s songs fuse au courant, R&B-swayed pop tastes with small-town sensibilities, which she traces back to her “very Southern” childhood in Knoxville, Tenn., colored by “church on Sunday, a big family, fried chicken.” She has vague memories of birthday party appearances by the frog mascot from the country radio station, WIVK, where her father, Ed, worked as sales manager. At one point, she and her folks shared a rural plot of land with aunts, uncles, cousins and livestock. “We had three cows and a goat,” she clarifies. “People from New York and L.A. are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a farm!’ But people in Tennessee are like, ‘That’s not a farm.’ I’ve never milked a cow or anything like that.”
Still, like her music, Ballerini’s upbringing wasn’t strictly down-home. She spent years competing on a local hip-hop dance team, for one. “It taught me a lot about rhythm and groove, and how this beat makes you feel this way,” she says. Her listening habits leaned toward pop like Britney Spears and ’N Sync — until she stumbled upon a Keith Urban track on a friend’s MySpace page, searched for his music and wound up bringing home several country albums, including one by Taylor Swift. Thirteen-year-old Ballerini concluded then and there that the confessional songs she had been writing to get over her parents’ recent divorce were best suited for contemporary country. “As soon as I listened to those records, I knew — this is where I fit,” she says.
Half a dozen years later, Black River songwriter-producer Forest Glen Whitehead, 24, was in search of “a country Beyoncé,” he says. “The first time that I saw Kelsea walk into Black River I’ll never forget. I walked into my publisher’s office and said, ‘That’s her.’ ”
Whitehead and writer-producer Jason Massey helped Ballerini find her glossily intimate country-pop sound while she sharpened her songs’ point of view, deftly capturing what it means to be a young woman in 2015: the urges to both stand out and fit in (“Square Pegs”), the compulsion to look put together (“Stilettos”). In March, Swift, who wrote the book on speaking to country’s massive teen female audience, tweeted that she had Ballerini’s 2014 self-titled EP “on repeat,” and later invited her to a birthday party she was throwing for her friend Abigail Anderson. “People ask, ‘Do you get tired of the comparisons [to Swift]?’ I’m like, ‘Uh, no!’ ” says Ballerini. “If there’s anyone’s career I could have a sliver of similarity to, it’s hers.”
Now, Ballerini is ready to see how far her next single, “Dibs,” about a girl putting playfully bold moves on a guy, can go. “It’s a fun and flirty song,” she says, “but I hope when people hear it, they hear that message of empowerment and confidence. It’s important for girls to have that voice. I hope people listening to that song think, ‘That is so me right now.’ ”
This story originally appeared in the July 25th issue of Billboard.