It's too early to crown Kelsea Ballerini as the first breakout female artist since Taylor Swift, but there's real reason to believe she could be (knock on wood) the one. The "Love Me Like You Mean It" singer admits the odds were against her when she started her recording career, yet here she is with a Top 20 hit and Swift's number in her cell phone.

To be blunt, she's a female on an independent record label and the current landscape isn't good for either. Go ahead and search for the last indie female to score a No. 1 country hit. Taste of Country went back a decade and came up with nothing but air. Only three female solo artists have notched their first No. 1 hit since Gretchen Wilson did it with "Redneck Woman" in 2004: Swift, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood (all numbers according to Billboard).

Kelsea Ballerini
Jason Merritt, Getty Images

Ballerini isn't going to jinx herself by talking about the possibility, and it it's a long road from No. 14 to No. 1. Yet, it's not too early to start thinking, "What if?"

“I think it’s such an exciting time for women in country music right now, and to be one that’s kind of breaking through is such an honor and such a big deal," the 21-year-old tells Taste of Country, exercising extreme caution and beautiful diplomacy.

Her optimism is refreshing — okay, almost shocking. More seasoned female artists like Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride both expressed reservations about the modern landscape for women in country music. "Right now the culture isn't too friendly toward females on the radio," McBrice said earlier this month, "But it never really has been."

She agreed that the tide is turning, however. While 2013 and 2014 were lost to any kind of social change, exciting new artists like Ballerini, Mickey Guyton and RaeLynn are finding a foothold next to new solo males like Sam Hunt and Michael Ray. Ballerini got a real boost when Swift sought her out to hang like BFFs. It was a total fangirl moment, Ballerini says, and she didn't try to hide it. It was also encouragement when she needed it most.

“I started writing songs when I was 12 years old," she says. "(Swift) had just released her first record, so from the beginning she’s just been a huge influence for me. So to have someone that you’ve looked up to for a long time admire your stuff and admire what you do is just a really big deal.”

Ballerini comes across as older than her years. In addition to Britney Spears, her parents' collection of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Aretha Franklin served as influences, but she holds onto youthful optimism and maybe even some naiveté. She's very 'girl next door,' but there's no sense that she's swimming in waters too deep for her.

The First Time
Black River Entertainment

A deep writing catalog likely brings confidence, and she can't wait to share more songs with fans. "Peter Pan" is one she's started playing live. The song about a boy who won't grow up is "definitely" a personal story for Ballerini (she wouldn't name names, although we tried) and is definitely going to be a highlight on The First Time, in stores May 19.

Another is a song her record label had to fight to get on the record. "Second Hand Smoke" is about her parents' divorce.

“I probably will never be able to sing it live. It’s too hard for me," she admits.

Of course that means Black River Entertainment will want to make it a single. Those kind of songs always sound great on the radio, as well as live. When asked to imagine playing it over and over again, Ballerini mostly dismisses the idea as a bridge she'll cross when she gets there.

There are others to cross in the meantime.

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