If there’s one thing country singers love to sing about, it’s country music itself, from its spiritual power to its grounding American majesty to its everlasting authenticity. In the last few years alone, there’s been “Old Country Song” by Dustin Lynch, “American Country Love Song,” by Jake Owen, and “Country Song” by up-and-comer Filmore, to name just a few.
Enter “A Country Song,” the second to last song on the the magnetic, thoughtful new album from Kelsea Ballerini. The most compelling country songs about country songs (see Maren Morris’ “My Church”) are by artists, flirting with other types of music themselves, who use these narratives as occasions to re-convince themselves of their roots.
Ballerini, a singer who’s collaborated with the Chainsmokers and been flooded with comparisons to country-to-pop pioneer Taylor Swift throughout her career, is one such artist. Her third full-length, Kelsea, is a catchy treatise on the push and pull dynamics of a pop-leaning Southern singer trying to negotiate genres, styles, and sounds.
Kelsea makes that tension — navigating between pop’s modern urbanity and country music’s rural signifying — its primary subject matter. The 26-year-old singer switches between the club and the cow pasture, between the feel-good Nineties country conservatism of “Hole in the Bottle” and the down-the-center Top 40 pop of “Love Me Like a Girl,” which bears more in common with Alessia Cara than Shania Twain. As Ballerini puts it: “I’ve got a love and hate relationship with L.A.”
The remarkable part is that Ballerini is a deft enough artist to pull off this tightrope walk. She’s the only singer in Nashville versatile enough to deliver a moody ballad with Halsey on one song and a heartwarming acoustic anthem with Kenny Chesney on the next. “Club” is a pious ode to refraining from debauched nightlife that nevertheless sounds like the perfect dance-friendly soundtrack to exactly that type of night. “Overshare” is a witty talk-singing tongue-twister that recalls the singer’s clever phrasing on her 2017 album cut “Get Over Yourself.”
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There’s surprisingly little filler on these 13 songs, barring a few missteps like “Bragger,” which lands in an uninteresting netherworld between country and pop. More interesting is when Ballerini explores the social dynamics of that same netherworld. “L.A.” is a personal narrative about uncertain identity and shifting priorities for an artist trying to carve out the same type of crossover space that peers like Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves have found more readily.
“I got some famous friends that I could call, but I don’t know if I’m cool enough,” Ballerini sings with a self-consciousness finally worthy of Swift. The song proceeds thusly, with Ballerini wondering if she’s gone too far, if she should still be the singer of songs about country songs.
“If I let down my hair in the ocean air,” she sings, “Will Tennessee be mad at me?” The answer, so long as Ballerini keeps making albums as cleverly crafted and deftly executed as Kelsea, is a resounding no.