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The evolution of Kelsea Ballerini is an intriguing lesson for country music

Kelsea Ballerini performs at the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. (Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

This past spring at the Academy of Country Music Awards, Kelsea Ballerini dressed in a sparkly pink leotard and silver boots for a buoyant rendition of her hit “Yeah Boy,” which she played on a shimmering guitar. Afterward, she posted a photo on Instagram with a caption that implied she had received some criticism.

“I wear a lot of glitter, I have bass drops and programmed beats in my songs and performances,” she wrote. “But ya know what, I write, sing, and LOVE country music and am so happy and humbled to be a part of such a beautiful night honoring it. K BYE.”

Ballerini’s rise over the past three years, from unknown songwriter to a best new artist nominee at the 2017 Grammy Awards, is a fascinating study of what it takes for a young artist to break through in a genre that only has about five women on the Top 50 songs chart. The 24-year-old Knoxville native has been open about her insecurities, but also defiant (see above) as she’s doubled down on her pop-country aesthetic — one she’s admitted that Nashville gatekeepers don’t necessarily consider “cool.” This evolution underscores the always-important lesson of what can happen if an artist doesn’t give into the pressure to change, just to please the industry.

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This is evidenced by her heavily pop-leaning sophomore album, “Unapologetically” — she’ll play songs from it when she headlines CBS’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday. The record sold 44,000 copies when it was released this month, landing in the Top 10 of the all-genre Billboard chart. Ballerini co-wrote every song, just like she did on her 2015 debut album, ‘The First Time.”

At this point, Ballerini could have easily acquired outside cuts (and surefire hits) by Nashville powerhouse songwriters. However, as she told Rolling Stone, she turned them down. While she admitted that she second-guessed that decision, it was important to prove herself as a songwriter: “That for me is why I’m an artist,” she said.

She had a lot of pressure for a follow-up — “The First Time” made Ballerini the first female country artist in history to have her first three singles go No. 1 on country radio. The success of “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan” catapulted her into the mainstream, as she started regularly appearing on television and in People magazine; she adopted her friend/mentor Taylor Swift’s strategy of bonding with her fans, who are now fiercely loyal.

Still, Ballerini struggled with feeling accepted. In a candid discussion with radio host Bobby Bones on his podcast earlier this year, the singer acknowledged she was thrilled that radio embraced her so quickly, even though the success of her pop-country hits made her “really not cool” among industry folks in Nashville.

“So to the industry you’re not that cool, but to everybody in the world, you’re the coolest thing ever,” Bones theorized. “And it’s a weird dynamic because you’re blowing up, but then … you’re like, ‘Oh, they don’t think I’m cool cause my songs sound poppy.’ Is that accurate?”

“It’s a huge insecurity of mine, yeah,” Ballerini responded. “And I’m trying to drain myself of that. Because, if anything, I just want people to know I’m a songwriter on this next album. That’s the most important thing to me.”

So far, “Unapologetically” has been received quite enthusiastically by critics — and if Ballerini was affected by criticism of her sound, she didn’t show it. She collaborated with high-profile songwriters, such as Hillary Lindsey (who co-wrote Ballerini’s current Top 20 single, “Legends”) and Shane McAnally (“I Hate Love Songs,” “In Between”); yet worked with the same producers from her first album, Forest Glen Whitehead and Jason Massey.

While the album’s title track is about a whirlwind relationship (“I’m unapologetically all in, from the second that I started falling/And it don’t even faze me, when they call me crazy”), the album name could also be a nod to how Ballerini has approached her career so far.

“When I was writing for [“Unapologetically”], and when I was picking the songs and when I was just deciding who I want to be, I was like, ‘I just want to be me,’ whoever that is,” Ballerini told Nash Country Daily. “Like, unapologetically this.”

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