Kelsea Ballerini on Undoing Country Music’s Norms

9 minute read

This article is part of the 2023 TIME100 Next, our annual list recognizing rising leaders in health, climate, business, sports, the arts, and more. Read more about Kelsea Ballerini—and see the whole list—here.

Kelsea Ballerini has had a whirlwind year. Last September, she released her fourth studio album, Subject to Change, to critical acclaim. In November, she nabbed her third Grammy nomination and finalized her divorce from her husband of five years, Morgan Evans. In February of this year, she released an EP, Rolling Up The Welcome Mat, an achingly honest emotional portrait of that divorce. In March, she made her debut as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. And in April, she co-hosted the CMT Awards, making a memorable statement by performing her song “If You Go Down (I’m Going Down Too)” alongside four drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. The performance, unsurprisingly, drew praise from many for her statement of inclusivity, while simultaneously spurring criticism from many conservatives at a moment when country music is increasingly in the crosshairs of the culture wars.

Now, after a lively summer of performances on her own Heartfirst Tour and as a special guest on Kenny Chesney's, Ballerini adds another feather to her cap: gracing the cover of the 2023 TIME 100 Next issue—the morning after making her MTV Video Music Awards performance debut, no less.

TIME met with Ballerini on two separate occasions in late August—first at her TIME cover shoot and the following week over Zoom, where she called in from her house in Nashville. Fresh out of a pilates class, she hugged her knees to her chest as she spoke from a quaint, sage-green room accented with healthy plants and framed pictures. Her excitement is palpable as she talks about upcoming trips to celebrate her 30th birthday, to the Amalfi Coast with her boyfriend and then to Saint John in the Caribbean with six of her best girlfriends.

After working in the music industry for nearly a decade, Ballerini attributed her long string of recent accomplishments to “being wired like a workhorse.” But now, after accumulating all of those feathers in her cap, she says she’s ready to take some time to slow down and “live a life worth writing about.”

TIME: You have been working in the music industry for almost a decade, and the last few years have been huge for you. Was there a moment when you noticed you were entering a new phase in your career?

Ballerini: My first No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart was huge. Also, getting asked to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve definitely had more of those in the last 12 months than I have in my whole career. What made me notice things were shifting was [my song] “Penthouse,” from singing it for the first time in Manchester to SNL to two different legs of the tour plus a Kenny Chesney tour in the middle. Watching it grow from a song that was just this quiet song on this quiet EP that I released—it’s the biggest hit in my set. That song has been like the litmus test of this last year for me.

What was the process of making the EP like? Cathartic?

The EP is unlike any other body of work I’ve ever made. When I signed my record deal at 20, I knew I was writing for commercial country albums. I would like to say in my heart that I was still writing from an honest place about my human experience as a 20-something girl. I was definitely thinking about what would sound good on the radio and, “Will this be a good song as I'm opening up for X, Y, and Z on their tours?”

What made this EP different is that I had just released my album in September and was going through a massive life shift. I was writing about it in my scarce time off. I didn't tell my management. I didn't tell my record label. I only told three of my closest friends and made the whole EP with one other person. When I finished it, I had this internal dialogue of: “Do I release this?” “What is my intention?” I decided I wanted to. I hand-delivered it to management and the label and said, “I don't want to promo this. I just feel like I must put this out into the world." There was such a pureness behind that, that I have to believe mattered, and is part of the reason it connected like it has. But yes, cathartic is the number one word I could use for that record.

Your songwriting across the EP is sharp and incredibly honest. Was there any part of the EP you were scared about releasing to the world?

The whole thing is a journey; it starts with the moment I decide for myself that I'm going to make a really big life change, and it takes you through more or less all the stages of grief. It's scary to bookmark your life so precisely and then put it out so publicly. It’s terrifying and so absolutely rewarding.

How did you know when you were done with it?

The opposite of love is indifference, and [the second to last song on the EP], “Leave Me Again,” is indifferent. It’s me saying genuinely that I’m at peace with myself and my decisions. I hope everyone who this has touched feels the same way.

You have also been on tour for quite some time—your own Heartfirst Tour and with Kenny Chesney. Do you feel most at home writing and being in the studio, or being in front of a crowd?

It’s almost different personalities. I used to sit on my laptop on a Word document and say, “When ‘Love Me Like You Mean It’ is done, right before I go into ‘Yeah Boy,’ I'm going to say this, this and this.” Then, I would script it out because I was so nervous about public speaking. I don't know if it's an age or a walking-through-fire thing, but I'm much less concerned about saying the wrong thing. I think that's really allowed me to be more present on stage. Whereas when I'm writing a song, it's me and my guitar in my sweatpants, just getting into the guts of what I'm feeling.

While on tour, was there anything about performing Rolling Up the Welcome Mat that felt new or different?

It's changed my live show completely. I started this tour in September, and we were always going to do three legs. The factor that changed was the release of Welcome Mat. The first leg of the tour wasn't sold out. It was around a brand new record that people were slowly learning, which was still amazing. But it definitely didn't feel like the second leg did. The second leg was right after Welcome Mat came out, and the shows were all sold out. There was a different energy in the room. Then, the third leg sold out in a matter of minutes. People were there because they were diehard about a journey we'd been on together for a year. It was a massive shift from leg one to leg three, and feeling that as an artist, it's still something I'm processing.

What are those feelings, if you can name them?

I feel really proud of myself as a woman for honoring myself and being brave enough to share it; now it's not mine. [The songs] have connected me to these people that now all are on this healing journey together, growing up together, messing up together, and learning together, and that's the whole point of life.

Right now, Country music is divided; people like you are bringing drag queens on-stage at the CMT Awards and making strides to be more inclusive. But then there’s the message many took from “Try That in a Small Town,” and Oliver Anthony’s song which unwittingly became a conservative anthem. Do you ever feel caught up in the crossroads of these changes to the genre?

I would say, for anything in life, when there's a “group of people”—and I use “group” in quotes—one person cannot speak for everyone. That is true for country music. I am in control of standing in what I believe in—and being a kind, good person who works towards making the world a more heard, safe, and inclusive place in whatever capacity I can do.

I wish I could change a lot of things. But I can just change myself and the community around me. And I am making sure that my intentions are good and pure.

There was a lot of pushback after you brought drag queens to the CMT Awards.

Oh yeah, there was! At the time, a lot of anti-drag legislation was being proposed in Tennessee. I was not only hosting the CMT awards, but I had a performance for a song of mine that is all about friendship and standing up for people that you love, and being ride-or-die for your people. I realized that that would be a really good, important, loud, big stage to make that statement on, and CMT was all for it.

What changes need to happen in order to make country music more accessible to not only a wider audience but to a wider range of artists?

It’s a process, and we’re undoing a way that, specifically, country music has done things forever. It's making sure that we're giving a voice to new artists; we're giving a voice to unsigned artists who represent underrepresented groups in Nashville because they're not getting a chance to be signed.

Nobody says people don't want to jam out to guys on the radio. I do. I also want to hear from women. Just as much, maybe more. I also want to hear from people of color, from the LGBTQ+ community. I want to hear all the voices we hear on pop radio on country radio.

You’ve done a lot outside of music, including writing a book of poetry. Are there other things outside of music that you hope to do?

I'm open to any other creative outlet that may present itself to me, while I always protect and nurture music at the forefront—obviously always. That will always be my baby and my true love.

Time 100 Next Kelsea Ballerini Time Magazine cover
Photograph by Caroline Tompkins for TIME

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