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See Kelsea Ballerini Photos From Girl-Powered Nashville Tour Stop

Budding talent takes us behind the scenes of her first Music City headlining gig, where Maddie & Tae were surprise guests

Kelsea Ballerini

Kelsea Ballerini brought the CMT Next Women of Country Tour to Nashville on May 12th.

Joseph Llanes

Playing the CMT Next Women of Country Tour stop in Nashville — her first-ever headlining gig in her adopted hometown — was a surreal experience for Kelsea Ballerini. Tuesday's show came less than a week before her debut album, The First Time, hits stores (on May 18th).

"I heard people sing [the LP's first single] 'Love Me Like You Mean It' so loud that I put up my microphone on the second line into the song," the singer-songwriter tells Rolling Stone Country. "I put my head down so I wouldn't start bawling. I looked over to the side stage at everyone from my label and my management [team], and it was just this moment. . . Those are the moments that you work so hard for."

The 21-year-old talent invited us behind the scenes of the show to capture intimate backstage and electrifying onstage moments — including one that turned this promising solo act into a trio. All photos by Joseph Llanes and captions as told to Rolling Stone Country by Kelsea Ballerini.

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Brotherly Love

"I love these guys [bass player Scott Jones, drummer Jacob Simmons and guitar player Reid Johnson]. They look after me like big brothers and are so talented. It's been fun to be in a full band; that's a pretty big thing for us."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Dixie Trio

"Since this was the CMT Next Women [of Country] tour, I wanted to bring up some of the other 'next women.' So I texted [Maddie and Tae] asking them to do this with me, and said, 'We should do a Dixie Chicks song! But you guys pick it.' So they picked 'There's Your Trouble,' and it was so much fun. I didn't tell anyone they were coming, so I started singing [Maddie and Tae's] 'Girl in a Country Song' and brought them up, and people lost it! I always want to be a surprise-giver."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Plugged In

"I really want to show people that I can play [guitar] and I can write songs. That's part of my story as an artist. . . actually, it's the whole reason I am an artist."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Golden Ticket

"That was the first time I'd ever seen my name on a ticket! I should get one. This is at [a meet-and-greet]. This guy named Joseph, who I went to high school with, brought a yearbook. He opened it for me to sign, and under my picture said, 'Most Likely to Be a Singer.'"

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Kindred Spirits

"The girls there in the front row — those are the ones connecting the most, and I love it so much. That's me! That's where I was a year ago."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Dancing Shoes

"I do a lot of dancing on stage, but I also wear unrealistic shoes. . . At this point, I was good to go. I only get really anxious until about the first chorus."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Full House Jitters

"Before the show, I was getting my hair and makeup done and CMT and CoverGirl were filming. That was when Carly [Pearce] had just gone on stage, so I was trying to hear the crowd's reaction to her. I was starting to get nervous, because I could tell it was a full house. Hometown shows, especially in Nashville. . . those are your peers, so I really wanted to do a good job."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Lights, Camera, Closeup

"It was very, 'Lights, camera, action!' while we were doing our makeup. But usually, that's my get-in-game mode — when I'm doing my hair and makeup, I'm listening to music and it's my 'me time,' my time to think about the show and what I want to say. But it's so funny, I made a list about two years ago of my dream tour, dream partnership and all these things. . . And CoverGirl was at the top of my list for sponsorships. It's so cool to see how dreams come true. It reassures me that I'm where I'm supposed to be."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Model Subject

"I love being in front of a camera, but I also love being behind a camera. In high school, we'd do photo shoots and sometimes I was the one being photographed and sometimes I was the photographer. I just love pictures. . . capturing the moment, capturing the milestone."

Kelsea Ballerini

Joseph Llanes

Surprise!

"I had a friend spend the night at my apartment [Tuesday] night, and she ran into my room and jumped on my bed and said, 'You're nominated for a CMT Award!' Want to know something crazy? Last year, I bought a ticket and went to the CMT Awards as a fan." [Ballerini's "Love Me Like You Mean It" is up for Breakthrough Video of the Year.] 

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