The 21-year-old singer-songwriter and Taylor Swift heir apparent just scored her first no.1 hit
Credit: Jeremy Ryan

“I moved to Nashville with my mom when I was 15 and that Christmas she got us tickets to go see Josh Turner at the Opry. We sat in the second-to-last row and watched his whole show and just fangirled the whole time,” Kelsea Ballerini says, remembering the first time she went to the historic Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She sang there for the first time earlier this year. “And to go from the back row as a fan to inside the circle within like five, six years, was really crazy.”

There have been a lot of recent firsts for the 21-year-old. Her first album (conveniently named The First Time) dropped to warm critical and fan receptions in May. She booked her first national tour, joining Lady Antebellum this summer for select dates, received her first CMA nomination, and made her Today show debut. She’s the first female since 2006 to sit on top the Country Airplay Charts with her single “Love Me Like You Mean It“. And she’s just the eleventh female artist to have her debut single sit on top the Country Charts—alright, that’s not exactly a first, but can we agree joining the likes of Carrie Underwood, Gretchen Wilson and Connie Smith isn’t to be skipped over in the name of semantics? (“Love Me Like You Mean It” is currently no. 46 on the Hot 100 Songs Chart and no. 5 on the Hot Country Songs Chart.)

These significances aren’t lost on the artist. “I call them ‘mountaintop moments’—that’s my saying for it,” she tells EW. “I haven’t had one yet where I’m like, ‘Oh this is it’ but, for example, I have a couple dates on the Wheels Up Lady A tour with Sam Hunt and Hunter Hayes. I got to open for them and then go back on stage and sing with them. Right before I went on, I turned to my band and said, ‘Seven years ago at my first CMA Fest, I was 14 years old and I waited in line to meet them. And now I get to go sing with them.'”

Ballerini’s single broke wide open, in part, thanks to an artist she was already drawing pop-crossover comparisons to. In March, Taylor Swift tweeted to her near-60 million followers, “Driving around with the @KelseaBallerini EP on repeat.. SO lovely:) #yeahboy #lovemelikeyoumeanit”

Ballerini laughs, remembering how her phone blew up immediately after. “I didn’t think it was real, literally. She’s one of the biggest artists in the whole world and for her to endorse other people—she doesn’t have to do that, you know? That’s a really cool thing. And I’m just such a huge believer in women supporting women. So when she did that, not only was it crazy awesome to get that many new ears on my music, but I just really respected her more for being a woman helping a woman.”

Ballerini has paid it forward, professing her own love for Kacey Musgraves’ new full-length, Pageant Material, on Twitter this week.

The discussion of being female in country music is currently a hot one. How women can break into a market where male artists have dominated sales and spins hand-over-fist in recent years reached new heights recently when Texas-based radio consultant Keith Hill said that if a station wants to improve its ratings, it should take the females out of their rotation. “Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” he said. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

Ballerini doesn’t shy away from the conversation. “They say it’s hard to break a female in country music, and I knew that going in, but I do think it’s changing,” she says. “I haven’t really felt a huge kickback. And I think that me and Maddie & Tae and Raelynn, we’re part of that. I think it’s just country radio being more embracing to us. I feel like when they embrace a woman, they then become a Shania Twain or a Faith Hill.” Radio has certainly embraced Ballerini, helping her set a record for total weekly spins overall this month and while Carrie Underwood’s “Little Toy Guns” joins “Love Me Like You Mean It” in the top 5, the drop-off after is steep—co-ed quartet Little Big Town is no.9, Maddie & Tae’s “Fly” is down at no.22, and Reba is currently holding down no.28 with “Going Out Like That.”

Next, Ballerini will push out her second single and see if lightning strikes twice. (Want to know our guess? Put a checkmark next to “Yes.”) Despite Swift’s jockeying for “Yeah Boy,”, “Dibs” has gotten the nod. And despite the entire album’s crossover flair, Ballerini is adamant that country is her genre. “The storytelling and the heart of country music is what I’m in love with. You can definitely hear, on the single and my whole album, that I’m influenced by pop—I was very open and honest about that—I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t like pop music. I love pop music. But my heart’s in country music and I feel like that’s just who I am.”