“This is the best day ever,” Kelsea Ballerini announces to Rolling Stone Country, a few hours after she helped reveal the nominees for the 49th CMA Awards this morning in New York City. Ballerini, who scored her first Number One with debut single “Love Me Like You Mean It” in July, is nominated for New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year. As an artist who just released her first album in May, recognition in the latter category is a big deal — and also one of the day’s two biggest surprises. The other is the strong showing of Chris Stapleton, who landed nominations for Album of the Year for his debut Traveller, Male Vocalist of the Year and New Artist. The fact that both the outlaw-minded Stapleton and the pop-country dance-happy chanteuse are nominated together in the New Artist category speaks to the genre’s increasingly broad scope.
But Ballerini contends it’s not strange that she and her polar opposite Stapleton, whose album she calls “amazing,” would share space in the New Artist race, alongside equally diverse nominees Sam Hunt, Maddie & Tae and Thomas Rhett. “Country music is in such a unique and special spot right now,” she says. “My theory is the root of a country artist is truth and honesty. For me, I look at Sam Hunt. The truth and the honest thing is we have southern roots, we were raised in a southern way, but we listen to Drake and other stuff too. It was important for me to establish myself as that. I was raised on a farm in East Tennessee, and my first concert was Britney Spears. It’s my job as a country music artist to be honest about that.
Stapleton, who, like Sturgill Simpson, has been cast by country purists as a protector of the genre’s traditions, echoes Ballerini’s pursuit of honest music but dismisses any suggestion that today’s honor is somehow a sign that his more rootsy, twangy songs like “Might As Well Get Stoned” and “Whiskey and You” will upend pop-country. There’s room for all of it, he says.
“Do I think I’m striking some kind of blow against the system? No, not at all. Do I think I’m doing what is hopefully authentic to me and things I like to do? Yes. In that regard, maybe [my music] doesn’t sound like something else that is going on right now, but I always hope it will be,” Stapleton tells Rolling Stone Country. “Mainly, I’m just trying to make music that I like. I had no expectations, and I still don’t completely comprehend or understand the events of this morning. But I’m grateful for it.”
Gratitude for the country music community may be the biggest common denominator between the two artists. Ballerini says she received congratulatory texts from Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and Dustin Lynch, while Stapleton — who learned of his nominations while taking his kids to school with wife Morgane — fielded calls and texts from peers like Dierks Bentley and Little Big Town until nearly noon today.