When country singer Kelsea Ballerini performed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” earlier this fall, his staff started looking for some Twitter insults about her so she could film a segment for the show’s recurring “celebrities read mean tweets about themselves” bit. They couldn’t find any.
Is Ballerini immune to criticism? Or is she not that well-known yet? While the latter is more likely, it doesn’t seem that way if you pay attention to country music. Ballerini, 22, has become this year’s breakout star, landing a No. 1 with her first single “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Her second, “Dibs,” is climbing to the Top 15. Her debut album “The First Time” has sold about 66,000 copies. On Wednesday, she will perform at the Country Music Association Awards, where she’s nominated in the new artist and female vocalist categories.
She also gets noticed by mainstream outlets like People and Us Weekly — and more importantly, she gets noticed by Taylor Swift, who adopted Ballerini as her “little sis” in her squad of powerful friends. Fittingly, Ballerinni is poised to take over the highly desired title in Nashville that’s been empty since Swift defected to pop: the top, young, female country singer who connects to young, female fans. Of course, more than one person can do that. But that’s not necessarily the way the music industry thinks.
“I went to Nashville when I was 14, and they were like, ‘There’s already a Taylor Swift. I don’t know what you’re doing,'” Ballerini said backstage before a recent show in Silver Spring, Md., describing unenthusiastic label executives. That was around 2007 when Swift was seeing enormous success with her debut album. Naturally, there couldn’t be room for two blonde, teenage country singers.
So Ballerini went home to Knoxville, Tenn., where she grew up and first realized she wanted to be a singer. She turned to songwriting in eighth grade, a year when everything went wrong: Her parents split up. Her dogs died. She hit a growth spurt and got “really tall and awkward.” She didn’t make the cheerleading squad.
“It was just one of those years, like, ‘God hates me right now!'” Ballerini said. “But it was this really cool thing because I feel like those are the pivotal moments in your life when you can choose to either go down a dark road or something catches your attention and you go off on that [path]. And for me, it was songwriting.”
Despite a lukewarm Music City response, Ballerini and her mother saw enough potential to move to Nashville, where she attended high school and college. In between classes, Ballerini worked on making her music stand out from what was already on the radio (i.e. Swift) and networked in the industry. Eventually, she got a publishing deal as a songwriter.
She landed a record deal in 2013 with Black River Entertainment after she penned “Love Me Like You Mean It,” an incisive, catchy tune where a woman lets a guy know she’s interested but has no time for mind games. It started when she and her co-writers — Josh Kerr, Forest Glen Whitehead and Lance Carpenter — were hanging out and heard Rihanna’s “Take a Bow.” Ballerini recalls that Whitehead said, “Kelsea, you could probably get away with that swag.”
So the group sat down and wrote a song using that confidence as inspiration. “I was like, ‘I just really want to be about female empowerment,'” Ballerini said. “That’s something that’s important to me. So we started writing this song about how girls should be loved correctly. But doing it in a very swag-filled way.”
Much of Ballerini’s music has a pop beat that she says she picked up from her years on a hip-hop dance team. With modern country music leaning toward that trend, she’s found a lot of listeners. While the pop-country blend is oft-criticized by some country fans, her style has also set her apart from other new female artists, getting lots of attention in the wake of a recent, glaring spotlight on difficulties that women have breaking into country music.
“I’m in this wave with Maddie & Tae and RaeLynn and Mickey Guyton and Cam,” she said, name-checking some of the other up-and-coming artists. “We’re all kind of finding our niches and becoming successful. I think that it’s just been really fun to be with them and do this all together.”
Now, as she heads to the CMAs for the first time as an actual artist, she continues to get compared to Swift. But instead of holding her back, it could become one of her biggest assets.
“I think for me being a young singer-songwriter, it was really hard for me to separate myself from her for awhile,” Ballerini said. “Now, it’s the greatest comparison ever because she’s in a different space. And honestly, when I look at Taylor, I see someone who puts songwriting and fans at the forefront… that’s something I want to hopefully do in my own career. And I hope that’s the comparison people see.”