Kelsea Ballerini – Dibs…Covered in shimmering gold sequins, the fringe from her minidress brushing against her legs, Kelsea Ballerini waited under the stage at Bridgestone Arena on Sept. 25. She stood on the hydraulic lift that in one song would raise her onto the stage, announcing her to the audience as Taylor Swift’s first surprise guest of Swift’s two concerts in Nashville. Ballerini could see the top rows of the arena, filled with Swift’s fans covered in glitter and some of them wearing Christmas lights.
“I was down there looking at it like, ‘I can’t get off of this thing now,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘I have to go up and do this right now. What am I going to do?’ It was insane. And it’s Taylor Swift. I was painfully nervous.”
Swift’s hydraulic lift raised Ballerini to the stage. The band started playing her No. 1 song “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and she and Swift took turns singing the words as they moved through the choreography that Swift had designed. At the end, paper hearts rained from the ceiling.
Just over a year ago, Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It” was starting to be played on country radio. Her debut album, “The First Time,” which is home to the hit song, was released in May. In June, “Love Me Like You Mean It” went No. 1 on Billboard’s country radio airplay chart. The accomplishment made Ballerini the first female country solo artist to top the chart with a debut song in nine years. When Ballerini joined Steven Tyler on the set of “Good Morning America” in September to read the nominations for the 49th annual CMA Awards, the 22-year-old learned she was nominated for New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year. Ballerini will be at the CMA Awards on Wednesday night when the winners are revealed.
“I don’t think I’ve processed that (I’m nominated),” Ballerini said. “Me, Carrie Underwood and Miranda (nominated with Kacey Musgraves and Lee Ann Womack for Female Vocalist of the Year), that’s not real. How did that even happen?” Quick road to stardom…Ballerini grew up watching Miley Cyrus on the Disney Channel in “Hannah Montana.” The Knoxville native was musical but thought being a singer was an “unattainable goal.” When she was 12, her parents split up and she found an unexpected outlet in songwriting, regularly penning three songs a day. At 13 she played some songs for her mother, who suggested that for Ballerini’s 14th birthday, they have them recorded. They visited a little studio in Knoxville, and when the owner heard her sing, he offered to bring her to Nashville. Two weeks later they came to Nashville and Ballerini had her first demo session and first meetings with record labels.
“I drunk the Kool-Aid,” she said. “As soon as I got here, I just loved it so much.”
At 15, she and her mother moved to Franklin so Ballerini could pursue a career in music. She spent that first summer at home, watching music videos on CMT and GAC, looking up different directors and composers. She continued songwriting, writing with anyone who was willing to write with her, but mostly alone. Ballerini knew no one so she friended everyone she could on Facebook hoping to make connections. She graduated from high school and went to college at Lipscomb University — that was her mom’s rule. She had to go to college until she could support herself playing music.
Ballerini was eating pizza at Mellow Mushroom when a former employee at Black River Entertainment recognized her from Facebook. He took her to meet Black River Entertainment CEO Gordon Kerr. Kerr remembers Ballerini walking into his office with her guitar, introducing herself and asking if she could sing him some songs.
“Her lyrics were real, but the way she delivered those lyrics made it personal,” Kerr said. “I’m sitting here watching this girl in front of me playing the guitar, and I’m thinking, ‘She makes me want to play that music for my family. She’s touching a part of my heart that honestly I don’t know had been open in that way.’ It was just a very surreal moment.”
Over time, Black River Entertainment signed her to its publishing company, but the record deal didn’t come until later. Ballerini visited Kerr’s office daily, played him new songs and said, “Are you going to sign me yet?”
Kerr watched Ballerini. He invited her to view concerts from the label’s suite at Bridgestone Arena, including Swift’s The Red Tour in 2013. She sat in the front row watching as Swift performed.
Kerr remembers asking Ballerini what she was doing.
“She said, ‘I’m taking notes,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘I want to know what the lights are going to be like when I stand up on that stage.’ ”
A few months later at the label’s Christmas party, Kerr called Ballerini to the stage and presented her with a gift-wrapped record contract.
Ballerini spent the next several months writing for her debut album. While she had hundreds of songs she had previously written, the ones on “The First Time” are new. She co-wrote every track, including debut single “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Penned with Josh Kerr, Forest Glen Whitehead and Lance Carpenter, the song was used as the anchor for her album.
“It was truly a turning point for me,” Ballerini said. “It’s not the craziest lyric you’ve ever heard. But for me, it was the song and the vibe, where I really was like, ‘This is it. Whatever this is, the sound and how I’m saying it, this is what I want to do.’ ”
Knoxville native Kelsea Ballerini moved to Franklin at age 15 to pursue a career in music. (Photo: John Partipilo / The Tennessean)
Sugarland’s Kristian Bush got to know Ballerini through playing shows to promote their individual songs. Bush was launching his solo career at the same time.
“I think she’s telling the truth of the life she sees with the language she uses,” Bush said. “I hear her writing voice as much as I hear her singing voice. I’ve watched her dedication to the craft of performance and entertaining. She’s growing and changing at a pace that would take most artists years. I would bet all of my money on her.”
Lon Helton, publisher of radio and industry trade publication Country Aircheck, believes, in part, it was that radio tour when Ballerini won the confidence of country radio executives.
“(They saw) her up close and in person, and they got the chance to not just hear the single, but they got the chance to hear the depth and the breadth of all of her music,” he said. “They believe she’s an artist they can invest in because it’s not just about one song. … There’s some little magic there.”
Ballerini’s current single, “Dibs,” is a poppy, flirty song about calling dibs on a guy who falls in line with the sound she introduced on “Love Me Like You Mean It.” While there are many songs on the album about boys, she added diversity with the song “Square Pegs,” which includes the lyrics “You gotta be, Who you oughta be.” “Underage” paints scenes of teenage moments.
In the past year, Ballerini has had many “mountaintop” moments. She said singing with Swift was “the coolest thing she’s ever done.” But she won plenty of applause on her own.
People included Ballerini in its “Ones to Watch” list. Billboard said she was “Country’s Next Queen,” and Rolling Stone called her “Nashville ‘It’ Girl.”
“I still have to remind myself that my career is working,” she said. “We were able to make the music that we wanted to make and that we believed in. I think being naive and being able to make exactly what we wanted, that’s what made us stand apart.”
Kerr offers a different perspective.
“She’s not arrogant,” Kerr said. “She’s not pretentious. She’s the girl that when she comes into a room, she makes you be a part of the lyrics. Kelsea makes you buy into and be a part of her dream.”