With Kelsea Ballerini’s star on the rise, she’s becoming the face of country music

Kelsea Ballerini will open for Keith Urban on his Graffiti U tour in Louisville, Oct. 20.
Kelsea Ballerini will open for Keith Urban on his Graffiti U tour in Louisville, Oct. 20. AP Photo

Kelsea Ballerini learned something last week that every popular musical artist has to be taught at some point: If you attempt to blow off steam with a fellow platinum-selling singer by performing at a dive karaoke bar, that impromptu duet will be on YouTube before you hit the parking lot.

The country singer and electropop star Halsey (“Bad at Love”) had just left the latter’s concert in Nashville when they decided to hit up Santa’s Pub. Santa’s gets it name from the large white-bearded gentleman that owns the establishment and is alternately best known around Music City for its “cash-only” policy; its posted policy of “be nice,” a rule enforced to such a degree that installing some Western saloon swinging doors would be a good investment; or being the best karaoke bar in town.

Country newcomer Kalie Shorr happened to be in the crowd, posted the duo’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” onto Instagram, and by early the next morning everyone was wondering if the two were working on a project together.

So it goes when you have a career as prolific as Ballerini’s has been since first hitting the scene with her 2015 debut album “The First Time.” That record featured three songs that all landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, basically unheard of in an era when female solo artists fight to break into most country radio stations’ playlists.

While many have taken Ballerini’s blonde hair and bubbly personality as an attempt to capture a portion of Taylor Swift’s fanbase, the truth is that talent can’t be hidden. The 24-year-old from Mascot, Tenn., has quickly become the face of country music in 2018.

She will open for Keith Urban when the Graffiti U World Tour hits Raleigh’s Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek July 27. With a schedule that doesn’t feature a lot of wiggle room, Ballerini made some time for The News & Observer before taking the stage last week in California to discuss her amazing career trajectory.

Q: So, the Halsey duet?

A: Yep, that happened.

Q: Lead our readers through the course of events that led to you two performing in a dive bar.

A: I’m a huge Halsey fan, so I had the tickets bought forever, and had told her that I was going to the show. I ended up hanging out backstage with her after the show, and we had never really hung out together before, and there are only so many places open late enough to go after concerts end in Nashville. Santa’s Pub is one of the few, so we karaoked the night away. It was actually really fun.

Q: Now that your second album, “Unapologetically,” is a success, how worried were you that there might be a sophomore slump?

A: Oh my gosh. Especially because with my first album, when I was writing it, I wasn’t signed as (a recording) artist. I didn’t really know that I was writing an album, so there was no real pressure on it. This time, every time I was in a room writing a song, I couldn’t help myself from thinking, “Okay, you’re writing a song that could potentially be played on the radio, no pressure.” It was just a different mindset this time around.

I finally reached a point where I had to tell myself that the only thing I am in control of is making a body of work that I would listen to, and that I can stand by. Once I realized that, everything became a little bit better, because I knew I was being true to me. When I got to that mindset, that’s when all of the good things started happening.

Q: You’re returning to host the ABC special “CMA Fest” on Aug. 8 with Thomas Rhett. How happy are you to find out that folks actually like you outside of just your voice?

A: It’s so funny, because I’ve been picking up some hosting things lately. I hosted [ABC’s variety show “Greatest Hits”] with Arsenio Hall years ago. That was the first time I had ever done that, and then I hosted the 2017 Radio Disney Music Awards, and now this will mark my second time hosting “CMA Fest.” I kind of stumbled into it, because it’s not like I came into music with the thought of, “Yeah, and I’m going to host on the side!”

I like doing it because it makes you more involved, especially with something like “CMA Fest,” because I get to both introduce people and then watch them perform. I get to talk to them, and hug them, and then kind of pick up on how they might do their regular shows. I’m a fangirl, so I really like being able to be out there the whole time.

Q: You’re coming to Raleigh as a part of Keith Urban’s Graffiti U World Tour, but earlier in the year you had headlined your own tour, which sold out every performance. Are there plans to headline another once the Urban gig is done?

A: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. This tour is a real sharpening tool for me as a performer, because I’m performing in front of a lot of people that aren’t necessarily there for me, so it’s a wonderful challenge to get them to hop onto the bandwagon before I step offstage. As a performer, it really does make you alert and aware, and helps you figure out quickly what works and what doesn’t. Three years ago I opened for Rascal Flatts, last year I was with Lady Antebellum, and this year I’m with Keith; I’ve really learned a whole, whole lot from them.

Headlining is so fulfilling, though. The people that show up to see you play know all of the words from track eight on your first album, you know? It’s just really validating in a different way.


Who: Keith Urban and Kelsea Ballerini

When: 7:30 p.m., July 27

Where: Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, 3801 Rock Quarry Road, Raleigh

Cost: $39.25; $103.25; $113.25

Info: LiveNation.com or 919-831-6400

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