Singer Kelsea Ballerini first graced country radio with her poppy upbeat debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It.” And music fans showed plenty of love in return, quickly embracing the young singer-songwriter for her girl-next-door image, sweet Tennessee twang, and fresh country-pop sound.
The Grammy-nominated artist draws inspiration for her songwriting from past relationships, insecurities, and heartbreak, which is probably why she found success at a relatively young age. Her authenticity shines through her songs, each one more catchy and relatable than the next. Ballerini’s 2015 debut album, The First Time, spawned three No. 1 singles on Billboard‘s country airplay chart.
Despite growing up in the public eye, Ballerini has remained humble, kind, and unapologetically herself, using her way with words to inspire and move people — like so many female artists did for her growing up. Let’s take a look at Kelsea Ballerini’s journey to becoming country music’s sweetheart.
Kelsea Ballerini turned to music during a trying time in her life
Kelsea Ballerini started writing songs when she was around 12 years old.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the Tennessee native revealed that music — songwriting in particular — helped her through her parents’ divorce. Back then, she’d write songs about a boy she thought was cute. It wasn’t until Ballerini got older that she was able to explore those tough feelings, which inspired the track “Secondhand Smoke” off her debut album, The First Time.
“It’s so many people’s story, and a story that needs to be told because I know when I was 12 and 13 when [the divorce] was happening, I felt super alone. I want to be a voice of comfort for people going through that,” Ballerini said. She noted, “And I love my parents; I have the coolest parents ever. . . separately,” adding, “So it’s not a knock on parents and their choices. It’s saying, ‘This is all I know, and I’m going to learn and grow from it and turn it around.'”
Kelsea Ballerini found inspiration in this music icon
Pop star Kelly Clarkson unknowingly gave Kelsea Ballerini the push she needed to make the move to Nashville.
As a teen, Ballerini attended a show on Clarkson’s “Behind These Hazel Eyes” tour. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Ballerini said any doubt she had of moving to Nashville washed away when Clarkson appeared to wink at her through the concert’s massive video screens.
“It was right when I thought I was gonna move to Nashville and be a singer, so I was super into it, and I remember I was watching her sing one of these songs and I was having a moment of like, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do with my life, this is it. And I looked up and the eyes winked. And I was like, Kelly Clarkson just told me that I have to be an artist,” Ballerini said. She added, “I swear, true story.”
Kelsea Ballerini attended her first label meeting at just 14
Kelsea Ballerini was only 14 years old when she attended her first label meeting in hopes of landing a record deal, but she left empty-handed after she was told she wasn’t original enough. That was around the time that a young Taylor Swift was establishing herself as country-pop’s princess. Like Swift, Ballerini was a spunky blonde singer-songwriter who played guitar.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Ballerini said rejection was a tough pill to swallow. “I walked in, and I had my big, pink, sparkly guitar case. I could barely play guitar, but I played him a song that I had written, and (the label guy) looked at me and said, ‘There’s already a Taylor Swift. That slot’s taken.'” In retrospect, however, that label meeting turned out to be a valuable learning experience, and one that propelled Kelsea Ballerini forward. “He was right,” she added. “It was the first time I realized I had to dig into myself, and figure out what I wanted to say.”
Kelsea Ballerini made this promise to her mother about her career
Kelsea Ballerini, still determined to make it in music, enrolled at Lipscomb University to be close to Music Row, the heart of Nashville’s country music industry. In an interview with CMT News, Ballerini said she made a deal with her mom that she’d attend college, at least until her music career took off. During her sophomore year, Ballerini signed to a local independent label, first for a publishing deal and then for a record contract. Ballerini held her end of the bargain and, at 19, said goodbye to college, but Ballerini told CMT News she was grateful for the experience. She shared, “It was two years of my life of getting to be a normal college student.”
Those early years in Nashville taught Ballerini another valuable lesson. In a Chicago Tribune interview, she said, “It took a long time for people to actually listen to me and actually take me seriously. But I learned that if I walked into meetings and could sit down and actually communicate my dreams and my vision … if I took myself seriously, then other people would, too.”
Kelsea Ballerini found support from other artists
Kelsea Ballerini was welcomed into the country music world with open arms, especially by some of the more established female artists, including Taylor Swift. Not long after Ballerini’s “Love Me” debut single hit radio airways, Swift tweeted (via MTV News), “Driving around with the @KelseaBallerini EP on repeat.” Country queen Shania Twain also praised the singer in a TV interview, telling Entertainment Tonight, “I love Kelsea Ballerini. She’s humble, she’s talented, she writes. So, I admire that.”
Ballerini revealed to Variety that she was surprised by the warm welcome. “It’s such a big part of my story, between Taylor posting about my EP when ‘Love Me’ wasn’t even top 40 yet, and then taking me out on stage, and then Shania posting about me and bringing me out on stage, and then Nick Jonas performing with me really early on,” she said. “It’s been a big deal to have people that have blazed trails in music reach out to help me. I’m still super-new and aware that my platform is not big compared to those artists.”
Kelsea Ballerini found radio success as a singer-songwriter in a male-dominated genre
It wasn’t long before Kelsea Ballerini started making a name for herself — climbing the male-dominated country music charts with her No. 1 hits (including “Peter Pan” and “Dibs”). In 2016, she launched her first headlining tour, “The First Time,” and later received a Grammy nomination for best new artist.
But Ballerini didn’t want to just write and perform songs. She soon realized she wanted to help even the playing field for female country music artists — who are often overlooked on country radio — by beating the odds herself. “I definitely feel like for any female, the odds weren’t necessarily in our favor,” Ballerini told AP News about her start in the music industry. So, she worked hard to earn her radio time, and she scored a nomination in the all-genre best new artist category, along with fellow country music newcomer Maren Morris. It was the first time in Grammys history that two female country music artists were honored in that category. For Ballerini, this achievement was for female country artists everywhere.
Kelsea Ballerini grew up in the public eye
Kelsea Ballerini’s earlier sound was fun and flirty, but, as she evolved in the music industry and grew into the woman she is today, she turned to songwriting to capture her metamorphosis, releasing a more raw and emotional sophomore album, Unapologetically, in 2017. In the track “In Between,” Ballerini sings about her insecurities on growing up, reminiscent of Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a cGirl, Not Yet a Woman.”
In 2017, Ballerini told Variety she reflected on the last two years of her life to write Unapologetically. “It starts with a breakup and starts gnarly and dark and starts angst-y, and then it goes into kind of like that moment where you find yourself again, and through growing up a little bit and fighting off some insecurities — and finding some new ones! And then it goes into meeting the guy that I’m now marrying, and it ends really light and full of love,” she said.
Kelsea Ballerini fell in love and got married
Despite her songs about heartbreak, Kelsea Ballerini found love with her now-hubby and fellow country artist, Morgan Evans. They first met in 2016 while co-hosting an award show in his native Australia, and sparks flew between them during the afterparty. “Later that night he leaned over and asked if he could kiss me, like a proper gentleman, and I said yes,” Ballerini told People. She told the magazine, “We both were in a place in our lives where we didn’t think we were open to a relationship. So yeah, we tried to self-sabotage. And by the end of it we were like, ‘We just aired out all of our dirty laundry and we still want to be together. This is awesome. We just did two years in two weeks.'”
The couple tied the knot the following year with an intimate beach ceremony in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Kelsea Ballerini never forgot where she came from
Even with all her success, Kelsea Ballerini never forgot about that little girl with a big dream back in Knoxville.
Ballerini has always placed her hometown high on her priority list. In 2016, she brought her “The First Time” tour to Knoxville (via CMT News). Three years later, in 2019, she performed for a sold-out crowd at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum for her “Miss Me More” arena tour. During her 2019 performance, Ballerini took a minute in between songs to thank her fans. “It means the world to me to be able to come home and come to this room and see all your faces and know that I can always come home, and you’re going to be there for me,” she said, as Knox News reported. “Thank you.”
She even shines a light on her hometown in her music. “High School,” one of the tracks off of Unapologetically, reflects on her time visiting Knoxville after moving to Nashville to pursue music.
Kelsea Ballerini wants to be taken seriously as a songwriter
Kelsea Ballerini has experienced a lot of success in a short time, but she remains a songwriter at heart — and she wants her fans to know that.
Talking with Independent, Ballerini said she wrote The First Time with friends. “I feel like the greatest gift we had when we made my first record is that none of us knew what we were doing,” she shared. “None of us had been in the room with a hit writer, I wrote the album with my friends. I was on a new independent label. We were winging it, hard.”
While she’s learned a lot since those early days, and now has a lot more help in the writing process, one thing hasn’t changed: the lengths she’ll go to write the best songs for her fans. When it came time to write for Unapologetically, Ballerini told the Herald-Journal she wrote about 200 songs before narrowing down the list.
Kelsea Ballerini has refused to be anyone but herself
Like the title of her sophomore album, Kelsea Ballerini has been unapologetically herself in her life as much as in her career. She told Independent that she doesn’t pay much attention to the naysayers who say her music isn’t country enough. “I get comments about it a lot. But I think it’s a really cool eclectic time in country music, you can hear Little Big Town who are folk country, Chris Stapleton — soul country, Sam Hunt who’s R&B country, me who’s pop country.” She continued, “You can hear the influences we listen to. I grew up on a farm in east Tennessee and my first concert was Britney Spears, that’s my music,” Ballerini said.
To show fans and critics just how open she is to trying new sounds, in 2018, Ballerini collaborated with EDM pop group The Chainsmokers on “This Feeling,” which introduced her to a more mainstream audience.
Kelsea Ballerini was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry
All of Kelsea Ballerini’s hard work, sweat, and tears paid off when she was inducted as the youngest current member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2019, after receiving a surprise invitation to join from Little Big Town, as reported by The Tennessean.
Notably, when Kelsea Ballerini was a little girl, she and her mom made the car trip from their home in Knoxville to watch Josh Turner perform at the Opry — and now she’s a part of Opry history. Ballerini told The Tennessean she didn’t expect to earn the honor this early in her career, if at all. “It makes me really grateful, but it also makes me want to earn it just in case it was early. I want to make sure the music I make … that I have this intentional time to make right now, is worthy of being an Opry member and worth of being in an arena.”
While accepting the honor on the Opry stage, a teary-eyed Ballerini told the crowd (via Billboard), “It is so nice and comforting to know that no matter where life takes me, and if radio stops playing me tomorrow, that I can always come here and I can always play country music…”
Kelsea Ballerini proved she shows up for her fans
No matter how successful Kelsea Ballerini becomes, she’ll never forget her fans.
In early January 2020, she took to social media to respond to one fan’s letter mailed to the country singer the previous December. Ballerini posted a photo of the letter on Instagram in hopes of reaching the 12-year-old fan named Ellie, writing in the caption that she couldn’t find a return address so she decided to respond on social media. In the letter, Ellie wrote that she was experiencing a tough time in middle school, noting, “I wanted to write to you because listening to your songs has changed my world!”
Ballerini wrote this response in the Instagram caption: “Middle school was really hard for me too. It’s a time when everyone is starting to discover who they are, it’s awkward and emotional, and unfortunately the way some people feel like they have it together is by tearing other people apart. Try your best to breathe through it and let it roll off of you, and please please remember that it’s not your weight to carry.” She added, “It will make you stronger and full of grace.”
Kelsea Ballerini has continued to use her life experiences to write music
Despite finding success as a singer-songwriter by reflecting on her past, Kelsea Ballerini started focusing on her future. She kicked off 2020 having released two songs in the months before, “Club” and what is possibly her most emotional song yet, “Homecoming Queen?,” in anticipation of her third studio album.
In an interview, she told The Tennessean that her marriage has given her perspective on past failed relationships, and naturally she’s channeling that into her new music. “I’m writing the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever written because I understand what went wrong before now. I think the older I get … the more confident I feel about writing that kind of stuff,” she shared.
Since Ballerini broke into the music industry, she’s grown as a woman and as an artist, but she’s still that same country girl with stories in her heart. We can’t wait to hear what she comes up with next!
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