Just a couple of weeks ago, Kelsea Ballerini experienced one of those surreal, is-this-really-happening-right-now? moments. The Knoxville, Tennessee, native was backstage on the night of her Grand Ole Opry induction, rehearsing a cover of Trisha Yearwood’s “Walkaway Joe” with Carrie Underwood in one of the dressing rooms. That’s all impressive enough, but then Keith Urban, who happened to also be roaming the halls backstage, heard the two women singing and decided to join in on harmony.
“That was the Opry in a nutshell: the only place where you can sing a Trisha Yearwood song with world class musicians, with Carrie Underwood, where Keith Urban pops in,” says Ballerini, calling from a tour stop in Florida.
But those moments seem to be a pretty regular thing for Ballerini, at least lately.
In addition to joining the Opry — she’s now the youngest current member at 25 — Ballerini launched her headlining Miss Me More Tour, following successful supporting runs with Keith Urban and Kelly Clarkson. Her 2017 album Unapologetically, which scored a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album, has produced a Number One song with lead single “Legends” and a Top 10 hit with the sleek, pop-leaning “Miss Me More.” Mere days after she became an Opry member, Ballerini returned to her hometown to play a sold-out show at Knoxville Civic Coliseum, the same venue where she’d seen many of her country and pop heroes when she was growing up.
Suffice it to say, Ballerini is having a very good year. It may get even better still, considering she’s working on a new album and composing with songwriting heavyweights like Ed Sheeran, Ryan Tedder and Julia Michaels. “It’s given me a whole different perspective and I’m really excited,” she says.
Congratulations on a huge couple of weeks, with your Opry induction and hometown show. Have you had a chance to process it yet?
Yeah. Whenever there’s a week like last week I always try to build in some time to clear my head afterwards. We live in such a fast-paced industry that it’s really important to take the moment to let it process and let it sink in or else you never really do and it just becomes a part of your story that you sometimes remember and sometimes don’t. So me and Morgan [Evans, Ballerini’s singer-songwriter husband] snuck down to Mexico for a couple days. I took a couple mornings and looked through all the photos of the first weekend of tour and the hometown show and the Opry induction.
With the show in Knoxville, what was it like to step onstage as the headlining entertainer in the city where you grew up?
Hometown shows definitely have a different kind of weight to them. I’ve gotten to play a couple now and I’ve always been really specific about where I wanted to play because there were certain venues that I went to growing up [where] I saw certain shows that really impacted me. So I want to create those full-circle moments for my 13-year-old self. When we were starting to have conversations about this tour, we really did build the whole thing around Knoxville. I was like, if we’re going to jump to these bigger rooms, I have to play my hometown. I have to play this coliseum where I saw Kelly Clarkson, who I just got off the road opening for. I have to play this room where I saw Little Big Town, who just invited me to be a part of the Opry.
“I’m very aware that my sound is not necessarily considered traditional country music and the fact that [the Opry] still believe in my roots … is really telling.”
You had obviously played in arenas before, but what differences did you notice as you made the transition to the headlining slot in bigger rooms?
Honestly, I got so used to the opening slot in this last year doing two back-to-back, Keith [Urban] to Kelly. I got used to the challenge of going out to a crowd that maybe knows “Peter Pan” and “Yeah Boy” but doesn’t know my full set and definitely doesn’t know my albums. So me and my band got really comfortable with that challenge every night and walking offstage, feeling like, “Alright, we hopefully got some new fans tonight.” The first night of this tour, walking out to an arena of people that know the album cuts, they know the songs I’ve teased on my Instagram, they know all of that and they’re so invested in the story, and they’re so invested in my life and what I’m going through — that feels different.
Your Grand Ole Opry induction took place a little over four years after the first time you got to perform there. It’s such a big milestone to even perform on the Opry, and now you’re a member. How do you begin to wrap your head around that?
I’ve said it a million times, but I really do feel like anyone who has a respect and a love for country music — if you’re an artist, or even as a songwriter, you want your story to land you on that stage at some point. When I first signed my record deal, that’s what I told the label: “This is on the very, very tippity-top of my goal list. I want to play on that stage.” The Opry invited me to sing there before I had a hit… I don’t even think [“Love Me Like You Mean It”] was Top 40. They invested in me early and allowed me to be a part of that history. So anytime I was able to be on the stage, I was on the stage. Every time I sang there, I covered a classic. It was always really important to me, to honor it as much as they would let me. I’m very aware that my sound is not necessarily considered traditional country music and the fact that they still believe in my roots and believe in the heart of my music, which will always be country — and still include me in that family — is really telling.
You sounded great singing “Walkway Joe” with Carrie Underwood at your induction. Had you sung with her before?
I hadn’t. As soon as I got invited, they told me that Carrie was going to induct me. I’m so glad they didn’t make that a surprise, because I couldn’t have handled it [laughs]. They had told me she wanted to sing together, so I reached out to her and we were going back and forth on songs — “Well, we definitely want to do a woman who is an Opry member.” We both love Trisha, adore “Walkaway Joe” and we hadn’t heard anyone cover it before. I told her on the phone, I’m like, “Listen, Carrie, I don’t have your kind of voice, so I’m gonna need to pick a song that’s not ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel,’ singing to the rafters. I can’t do it!” We found the perfect blend of a beautiful story song that didn’t make me try to sing like Carrie.
How far along are you on the next album?
“Miss Me More” is the last single [from Unapologetically], so we’re kind of closing it out with this tour and this single together. If things go like they’re planned right now, which is always subject to change, we have the first two singles and the first one will come out August/September. It’s right around the corner.