After so much talk this year about the lack of feminine presence on country radio, country’s newest hit female, Kelsea Ballerini, celebrated her first Number One, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” with a party Monday full of awards and gratitude on Nashville’s Music Row.
More than just her first Number One, the gold-certified “Love Me Like You Mean It” also marks the first time a solo female has held radio’s top spot since 2013 (Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away”), and it makes Ballerini one of only 11 females in history to notch a Number One with her debut single.
Lively, light-hearted and romantic, the song rings true to a 21-year-old’s trials of love and was co-written by Ballerini with Josh Kerr, Forrest Glen Whitehead and Lance Carpenter. But rather than appearing during a scheduled writing session, the country newcomer says her debut’s inspiration came from an unlikely source — a night of eating pizza and listening to Rihanna’s “Take a Bow.”
“All of a sudden we were so inspired by the swag and the sass she had as an artist on that song,” Ballerini told Rolling Stone Country before the party. “I wasn’t even signed as an artist yet, but we were all determined to create a ‘sound’ for me together as a group, and that night marked the beginning of it.”
For their part, her co-writers all agreed Ballerini’s sound is mostly of her own making – which is something many young artists aren’t ready for yet.
“The biggest thing is she knows who she is and what she wants to say,” said Kerr. “There are always ideas that come about, but she knows, ‘This is how I would say this and I have this style.’ It just comes out of her naturally, which is very unique. Not a lot of people can do that.”
It was also the first Number One for each of the co-writers, so the party was full of industry colleagues, family and friends. Held in the white-marbled lobby of the performing rights organization ASCAP’s headquarters, the party kicked off with a speech from Senior Creative Director Mike Sistad, who recalled first meeting Ballerini when she was just 15. The time wasn’t right back then, but after handing out a round of plaques signifying her and her co-writers’ achievement, Sistad said he fully expected to be celebrating at more of these parties in the future.
Celia Forehlig — the vice president of publishing at Ballerini’s record label, Black River Entertainment — coaxed the first round of tears from the singer, saying, “When your dreams come true, mine come true.” After sharing a heartfelt hug, Forehlig also handed out a round of plaques, asking if maybe she should hang on to them since so many were yet to come.
“We’ll take ’em,” Kerr shot back with an eager smile.
Other plaques, trophies and medallions then arrived from the Country Aircheck, Country Radio Broadcasters and Country Music Association organizations, and finally it was time to hear from the writers themselves.
Carpenter started out by thanking Ballerini for her hard work, taking the song out to fans and radio stations and generally “busting her ass.” He was soon overcome by emotion. “Y’ll get to see a big ol’ country boy cry,” the Arkansas native joked, wiping away tears. “I’ll do cart wheels later to even it out.”
Carpenter closed with a poignant thought on a night of firsts: “Dreams,” he said. “If you’ve got ’em, chase ’em. If you don’t, get ’em. They come true.”
Kerr also found himself overcome with emotion, saying, “I did not think I could do this, but Celia just knew it for some reason. . . We were eating pizza and listening to Rihanna — not even country — now we’re here.”
And for Whitehead, special thanks and praise were in order for Ballerini.
“She not only blew me away as a songwriter, but when I got her behind a mic she made you feel what she wrote,” said the song’s co-writer/producer. “That’s so important, because pretty girls carrying guitars in this town are very common, but pretty girls carrying a guitar that can write the hell out of a song and make you believe it are so rare.”
A huge roar filled the room as the budding star took the podium, and tears began to well in her eyes before she could even get her first sentence out.
“This is a room full of dreamers,” said Ballerini. “And being dreamers you look forward a lot. You look forward to goals that you set and you look forward to your first Number One, but you don’t often look back. Last night on a very un-glamorous red-eye flight from Las Vegas, I started looking back.”
Saying that she spent a lot of time thinking about her supporters and believers, all the demos, all the setbacks and all the struggle, she thanked her colleagues with humility and grace and ended with a promise: “Right now I see a Wednesday night with a box of pizza and ‘Take a Bow’ on the radio, Forrest saying, ‘Kelsea, you need a song with swag,’ and me saying ‘OK,'” she laughed. “It wasn’t supposed to work, but it did. Thank you for already making looking back look so beautiful. And looking forward, I really just want to make you all proud.”
Ballerini’s second single, “Dibs,” is currently rising inside the Top 35 on Billboard‘s country airplay chart. She’ll be joining Dan + Shay this fall for the Just the Right Kind of Crazy tour.