Valentine’s Day was a day of good news, bad news for Kelsea Ballerini. On the down side, the singer was battling a case of the flu. But that didn’t deter her from headlining for the first time on one of Country Music’s most esteemed stages — The Ryman Auditorium — while touring to promote her sophomore album Unapologetically.
“That one was very special, I think, because of the importance of the Ryman Auditorium. I found myself really wanting people to clap more, to stand up and sing. I had never experienced that at the Ryman before, and wondered what it was going to feel like. The room carried that depth and significance, and the history that it has. It came to life in the way that I hoped it would with that particular show. It was a really cool moment.”
The night was also magical for one of Ballerini’s fans, who was in attendance at “The Mother Church.” The Black River recording artist noticed that Abby Stephens was near the front of the stage. As it turns out, she was also there at the beginning of her career.
”It’s funny — I haven’t seen her in a few years, and I didn’t know she was coming to the show,” Ballerini relates. “I met her in Dallas at the ACM’s. I was playing a tiny side stage outdoors. There were maybe 30 people there. I remember her coming up to me before I went on stage, and she said, ‘My name is Abby. I want to be a singer, and I really like your music.’ I brought her on stage then, and I’ve seen her a couple of times since. I saw her in the crowd, so thought I would get her up on stage with me [to help sing “Dibs”] at the Ryman. It was special.”
Obviously, bringing a fan on stage to sing with her every night isn’t the norm, but being able to make a memory for someone like Stephens — or newcomer Bailey Bryan, who is opening for her on her Unapologetically tour this year — is a role that Ballerini cherishes. It gives her a chance to pay forward what mentors such as Shania Twain or Taylor Swift have done for her.
“It’s hard to wrap my mind around that because I am so new, but I am really aware that Shania bringing me on stage or tweeting about me [was] so pivotal for me,” she explains. “These people were so much further along than me, and they were reaching out their hand. So, if I can do something like that for someone, that’s an awesome [feeling].”
Also making an appearance during her Ryman debut was her husband, Morgan Evans, who came with flowers. When asked about married life, the singer says the honeymoon is still ongoing — though time together is at a premium. “We’ve both been so busy. He put out his first single [“Kiss Somebody”], and got off the road with Cole Swindell, and will be out on the road with Chris Young in a few weeks. During the weeks, we see each other at home, and we’re each other’s biggest teammates, and then on the weekend, we are warriors.”
And on the road is where Ballerini will be much of the year – whether headlining, or in support of Keith Urban on his upcoming Graffiti U tour. Nobody is looking forward to that experience any more than Ballerini herself. “I don’t think it’s any secret that he’s my favorite artist,” she raves. “The way that he grows and re-invents himself, but always leads with a great lyric… ‘Stupid Boy’ is the song that made me stop in my tracks and want to do this.”
She’ll certainly have plenty of her own hits to perform while on stage, with her “Legends” having just become her fourth number one onBillboard?’s Country Airplay chart. After hitting the summit with her first three singles, seeing “Yeah Boy” peak at No. 3 made her appreciate that moment all the more. “It just reminded that having a No. 1 isn’t something you should ever take for granted. You’ve got to keep your head down and work hard. With the first three singles going No. 1, I think there was a thought process of ‘Is this what it’s always going to be like?’ Then, the answer was no, and it came rather quickly. That was a really good perspective-change. With ‘Legends,’ it wasn’t the easiest song to release. It’s a mid-tempo story song in the middle of the summer. We knew that, but we also felt lyrically and maturity-wise, it was the right choice.”
The singer hopes that her next single, “I Hate Love Songs,” will also be a choice that pays dividends. She said the song wasn’t even on her radar as far as making Unapologetically: “It wasn’t going to be on the album originally. We thought we were done with it, but I had about five co-writes left. So, I go into one with Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally. I know them both really well, and they know that I had been writing for this record for two years. We went in, and they asked ‘What else do you need for this album?’ I said ‘You know what? I think I need another love song, but gosh, I hate love songs!’ As soon as it came out of my mouth, we just looked at each other as if to say ‘Go.’ It was just the most poetic, fun, Dr. Seuss kind of words that we were using, and it just fell out.”
Once she began to play the song live, she knew she had something. “I played it at the Grand Ole Opry, and I had never gotten a reaction like that before,” she recalls. “After every line, we had to slow down, because people were reacting. I walked off the stage and texted my manager and label, and said that we needed to re-think putting this one on the album. We did, and I played it all last year on the Heart Break tour with Lady Antebellum, as well as on my tour. Wherever we’ve played it, it’s consistently reacted well. So, I’m very excited to see what it’s going to do.”