On the night of the CMT Artists of the Year festivities, while many of her country music friends were sitting in sparkly gowns with glasses of champagne in their hands, Kelleigh Bannen was sitting in a 12-passenger van towing a U-Haul trailer, on the way home from a show in Kentucky.

Glamorous, right?

As she set her eyes on the dark highway in front of her, the phone in Bannen's hand lit up with the news that CMT honoree Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town had uttered her name during a now-viral speech.

"It speaks to the kind of person Karen is that she would use her moment in the spotlight to champion other women," Bannen tells Taste of Country a day after the event. "There’s no one I admire more in this business — from the music she makes, to the way she treats those around her, to the relentless way she has fought for her dream."

Fighting for a dream is something that has become commonplace for Bannen, who has experienced her share of twists and turns and accomplishments and disappointments on her road to country music stardom. The Tennessee native first broke onto the country music scene in 2012 with the song "Sorry on the Rocks," following it up with songs like "Famous," "Smoke When I Drink" and last year's critically-acclaimed "Church Clothes."

None of the songs received notable chart success.

Still, Bannen rolled on, supported by countless people in and out of the industry, as well as a growing legion of fans who always root her on. At yet another crossroads in her journey, she has released the song "Happy Birthday," a heart-altering song about a date on the calendar that stings when it rolls around each year.

"It really surprised me that ‘Happy Birthday’ has gotten such a strong reaction from everyone who has heard it,” Bannen says. The song is from a three-song, recently-released EP, The Joneses. "There is something not only powerful about the song, but something that is so relatable to so many of us. It’s ending up to be a bigger song than we ever realized."

A self-funded and unfortunately relatable music video has given "Happy Birthday" even more traction. "I don’t know much, but I do know that I believe in this song and I know that I felt that it deserved a video," she says. The song is a co-write with Claire Douglas and Dallas Wilson.

"I owed it to my co-writers and my team and I owed it to this song," Bannen adds.

It’s another example of the courageous and confident (and somewhat defiant) way in which she is approaching everything in her life right now.

“For a long time, I just thought that if I did what I was supposed to do, I would be successful," she admits. "I think now that doing that was not such a powerful place to live from. Now, I am focusing in on brutal honesty and vulnerability and authenticity. I don’t want to have to fit in a box anymore. I know this journey won’t be a straight forward path, but that’s ok."

Jagged as it may be, "Happy Birthday" is shining new light on her path — it may just be the song that makes Kelleigh Bannen a household name.

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