Best New Artist Grammy nominee Kelsea Ballerini's breezy country-pop takes inspiration from the straight talk of Dolly Parton, the sun-dappled hooks of Sheryl Crow, and the pure emotion of Kelly Clarkson – not to mention Rihanna's swag. Here are five facts about the singer-songwriter, who broke out big over the past 18 months with hits like the coy "Dibs" and the wounded "Peter Pan."
She started her songwriting career early.
The Knoxville native made her stage debut at a Mother's Day show when she was 12 with "Oh Mama," a song that she improvised as a last-minute gift to her own mom. "I forgot it was Mother’s Day the next day, and I knew that my mom loved what she calls 'gifts of the heart' — you know, things that are just really sweet," Ballerini told The Boston Globe. "I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just write her a song.’ That was the beginning of the end for me."
She's performed with some of her idols.
In 2015, Ballerini appeared at country-crossover megastar Taylor Swift's 1989 tour, singing "Love Me Like You Mean It" in Nashville; this summer, she's opening for twang-pop trio Lady Antebellum on their You Look Good World Tour. "[Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift] were the two people that I would have wanted to meet at my first CMA Fest when I was like 12," she told the Hollywood Reporter, "so to be able to even know people like that and be able to learn from people like that is cool! To be able to be on stage with them is my dream – my 12-year-old self's dream."
She balanced college with country music before making it big.
Ballerini attended Nashville's Lipscomb University for two years, and wrote songs for Black River Publishing when she wasn't in class. She signed her label deal during her sophomore year, which sent school to the back burner. "Me and my mom made a deal that if something would happen to help me get my start in music, I could get out of college," she told CMT. "It was like, 'OK, Mom.'"
One of her biggest hits was inspired by a teen magazine.
The flirtatious "Dibs" was inspired by Ballerini flipping through an issue of Seventeen. "I saw the word 'dibs,' and I thought it was super cute so I put it in my song idea list on my phone," she told The Boston Globe. "The whole time we were writing it a few months later, we actually couldn’t tell if it was too quirky or not — we weren’t sure if it was good or if it was silly."
She's a chart force.
When "Love Me Like You Mean It" hit Number One on Billboard's Country Airplay chart in 2015, Ballerini became the first singer in 10 years to that chart with a debut single. With "Love Me Like You Mean It," "Dibs," and "Peter Pan," Ballerini became the first female artist in a quarter-century to launch three country-chart-topping singles from a debut album. "When I got the call that 'Peter Pan' was going to Number One, ironically I was at Disney World – at the Peter Pan ride," Black River Entertaiment CEO Gordon Kerr told Billboard. "It’s a pretty neat experience when you can be standing in front of that and be able to call Kelsea and say, 'You now have made history.'"