If a single anecdote could represent Kelsea Ballerini’s entire journey to No. 1, it may be her story from this month's CMT Awards. The newcomer was preparing to play “Love Me Like You Mean It” on a side stage. The performance was to be brief, but she was terrified. She stood there, trembling in front of an audience of her peers, the most famous of which were just a few feet away. Ballerini waited, and waited and waited for her green light. And then she looked up to find a familiar face, someone who had quietly mentored her over the course of the last 40 weeks and beyond. A quiet hero.

“I’m so painfully nervous, just so painfully nervous,” Ballerini says, remembering that instant before she started singing. “And I look over at her and she just kind of puts her hands up in the air and just does a dance-party move at me.”

Ballerini — talking to Taste of Country from the road — laughs at the memory as if it was happening before her at that very moment. It’s a sincere, unfiltered laugh that could quite possibly make the guards at Kensington Palace grin. Then she becomes more reflective.

There was no reason it was supposed to work at all,” Ballerini says. “There was a lot of reasons that it wasn’t, which makes it even sweeter.

“I just so needed that.”

“She” is Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, a woman who the Knoxville, Tenn. native calls a big sister. Scott has been there from the beginning, offering advice or just silliness when it was needed most. For Ballerini, entering the Top 40 was exciting. Getting “Love Me Like You Mean It” to the Top 30 would have been good enough, she says.

At Top 20 the industry really began to notice. At Top 10 Ballerini says she really began to wonder, “What if?”

It takes a village to raise a baby, and song. Today, this 21-year-old becomes the first female to have her debut single reach No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart since Carrie Underwood. She’s the first female solo artist to hit No. 1 in almost three years. She’s the first female not named Carrie, Taylor or Miranda to celebrate her first No. 1 since Gretchen Wilson did it in 2004.

Ballerini broke through a glass ceiling that has long seemed impenetrable. A less likely story could not have been written. She got the call last Saturday, knowing her team on the other end would either tell her she did or didn’t have a No. 1. She expecting to be excited if she did, but didn’t expect to get emotional. “Nope! As soon as they called I started bawling,” she says, laughing. Don’t worry, there’s video.

“There was no reason it was supposed to work at all,” Ballerini says, offering another girl-next-door giggle. “There was a lot of reasons that it wasn’t, which makes it even sweeter.”

Let’s count the reasons. She’s a woman, which in today’s culture seems to be an obstacle. It’s a disgusting truth that seems to be decomposing, slowly.

Kelsea Ballerini
Jason Merritt, Getty Images

Ballerini is on an independent record label. Black River Entertainment doesn’t have Sony or UMG’s clout. They don’t have a long history of hits; in fact, this is the label’s first chart-topper. They’re the David to the industry’s Goliath.

And finally, the song has no gimmick. It’s a straightforward, pop-country love song that climbed the charts slowly and relied on fans and radio to respond. At first listen “Love Me Like You Mean It” doesn’t smack you across the face. It takes two, three or 10 spins for fans to say, “I sort of love that song.”

“I’ve been dreaming about (having a No. 1) since I was 12, so it’s really exciting for me,” Ballerini says. “But more than that, being a female, on an independent label — and I wasn’t on a show or anything — it’s cool to break those stereotypes and do this not just for me, but for my label too.”

Ballerini recognizes she’s now the face of a movement to some degree, but she’s not focusing on it. She says she’s all about women helping women, and hopes she’s opened doors, but she also will start worrying about the follow-up to “Love Me Like You Mean It” very soon. “Dibs” is already getting airplay on SirusXM (another early supporter) and Radio Disney, and will ship to terrestrial radio in the near future.

It takes a village, and Ballerini wasn’t shy about naming a few of the important people who stuck their necks out for her. Some are obvious. Her family and fans, the team at Black River and radio programmers nationwide would make the top of her speech if this was an awards show. Below are a few more of the quiet heroes:

Bobby Bones - The host of America’s most popular country music morning show has been in Ballerini’s corner since the beginning, often hijacking his signal to show her added love. “He made a deal with me that any time I had another artist call in he would spin it extra,” Ballerini says. “So I had my friends Maddie & Tae and Jana Kramer and Deana Carter and Little Big Town call in and request it.” In the music industry, an extra spin during morning drive on the Bobby Bones Show is the equivalent to a five-run home run in baseball.

Taylor Swift - While Taylor Swift’s sudden and unexpected interest in Ballerini and “Love Me Like You Mean It” didn’t result in any sudden push in airplay or sales, it exposed the country newcomer to a whole new audience. Suddenly she was on a bunch of new platforms, and that extra media coverage created some short-term urgency and long-term credibility. The two are friends now, but Ballerini recognizes that first tweet was special.

“I just think she’s a really good example of women empowering women,” she says. “And it’s Taylor Swift.”

Craig Morgan and Kellie Pickler - Full disclosure: Taste of Country suggested the two hitmakers, but Ballerini agreed that her two labelmates helped pave a road for her to travel years later. Neither Morgan or Pickler enjoyed a Top 10 hit on Black River, but both released very solid singles that gave her radio promotions team a foothold in building relationships with stations across the country. In country music, having friends is paramount. When it came time for the Black River team to ask for help with Ballerini, they weren’t asking strangers to commit. They were picking up the phone and talking to people who had learned to trust them. Radio approaches strangers cautiously, and thanks to artists like Morgan and Pickler that wasn’t a concern.

Hillary Scott - The difference between two artists with equal songs can be the friends they have cheering for them. The most talented singer-songwriter in the world will fail to get a song played if he or she doesn’t have a humongous support network, and at least one mentor. Scott was clearly that person for Ballerini.

“She’s definitely talked me through a bunch of artist stuff, and kind of prepped me … because she’s done this,” Ballerini says.

Kelsea Ballerini - Kelsea didn’t name Kelsea, but we’ll add her to this list. Part of the reason so many people rallied for Ballerini is because she’s so dang likable. Follow her on Twitter or watch her during a television interview and you’ll find a girl you can relate to. She gets nervous, she cries, she laughs and giggles. She has insecurities but does her best to work through them. You see yourself in her, and that’s really refreshing. Skeptical? Just watch:

“There’s value in being a normal person,” she says.

This is something fans often miss when wondering why their favorite new artist isn’t having more success at radio. Is he or she immediately likable? Is someone who’s not necessarily a fan of the music going to become a cheerleader for that artist as a person? Apathy serves as a defacto “No.” Some will cry out a tired line about only the music being important. That’s just not realistic in country radio or life. It takes a village.

There are two females in the Top 5 right now, and I am stoked to be one of them. I just know that I wouldn’t be a songwriter or an artist or anything if it wasn’t for females like Shania Twain and Faith Hill and Jo Dee Messina. They’ve always been a staple in country music, so I don’t even know why that’s a question.

So Kelsea Ballerini’s secret weapon isn’t her voice or her sharp pen. It’s that people want to root for her. Nine years ago the same thing was true about another young female country newcomer. One wouldn’t be surprised if in 2024 Ballerini is the one sending a nervous rookie a message, just when it’s needed most. Keep an eye on her during future awards shows. Look for her to be the one making a silly dance-party move at a younger artist who’s trembling with fear before her first television awards show performance.

Ballerini's No. 1 doesn't mean things have changed for women in country music, but it certainly gives hope that things are changing. Taste of Country is a proud supporter of women in country music. Click the button below to learn more about the #LetTheGirlsPlay movement, and how you can help.

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