The L.A. country radio station I listen to has been playing a lot of old Taylor Swift lately. They have no other choice: When Taylor decided to embrace pop stardom and hang up her banjo, she left a gaping void in mainstream pop-country that has yet to be filled. Sure, you have your established country queens Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, your grand dames like Martina McBride and Mary Chapin Carpenter. There's Little Big Town, the ABBA of country, and upstarts Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves. For the most part, though, Billboard's country charts are a serious sausage grill: Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton.
While these artists have vast popular appeal — and, in Musgraves's case especially, are often powerful songwriters — none of them are filling the glass slipper Taylor Swift effectively vacated when she dropped Red four years ago. Into this landscape pirouettes the improbably well-named Kelsea Ballerini, a 22-year-old pop-country singer from Mascot, Tennessee, whose very name calls to mind a tiny dancer twirling in a music box.
Ballerini has made it known that she wants Swift's old spot, and Swift herself has bestowed her seal of girl-squad approval on Ballerini. At the moment, she seems to have the field all to herself. Ballerini moved to Nashville at age 15 to pursue her career, like Swift. She signed with a small indie imprint label, Black River, like Swift. And I'm sure it didn't hurt the game plan that Ballerini's dad is a country music radio programmer. Blonde, tan, sweetly effusive, and Southern (though she sings with a twang that is not present in her speaking voice), she fits the prototypical crossover country star mold, as pioneered by Barbara Mandrell in the ‘70s, perfected by Faith Hill in the ‘90s, and mastered by Swift — the pretty girl who’s got talent and spunk to burn. In true Swift fashion, Ballerini has songs about being young, being a nerd, dating around, disappointing exes, and, most of all, romances that flame out in spectacular fireworks.
Ballerini claims TRL pop artists like Britney Spears and NSYNC as her first musical inspirations, calling Keith Urban her gateway into country music. She tellingly name-checks Shania Twain as another major guiding light — country’s biggest crossover in the era before Swift started breaking chart records. Ballerini’s first single, 2014's "Love Me Like You Mean It," is her biggest, and seemed to place Ballerini, who writes her own songs, as the natural heir to Swift (it nabbed her two CMA nominations out the gate, including Female Vocalist of the Year). “Love Me Like You Mean It” is a big, sweeping heart-stomper about the stakes of entrusting your love to a new boy after a series of “losers, liars, and users.” Ballerini comes through with a familiar breathless romanticism — an endless optimism whose flip side is cynicism when things don’t work out. It’s not explicitly teenage, but its drama screams young love; its pace is “slow dance.”
When "Love Me Like You Mean It" went to No. 1, it broke a two-year drought on country chart-toppers by solo female artists. It also made Ballerini the first woman since Carrie Underwood to top the charts with a debut single. Ballerini's coy come-on of a second single, "Dibs," also went to No. 1, making her the first solo female artist in 15 years to start her career with back-to-back No. 1 country hits. “Dibs” is a laid-back flirtation: “If you’ve got a Friday night free and a shotgun seat / Well, I’m just saying I ain’t got nowhere to be,” she sings, before the refrain, “I’m calling dibs / On your lips.” One of the main differences between Swift and Ballerini is that she’s forgone the Pollyanna naïveté of her progenitor. Ballerini positions herself as your senior sorority sister who has all the sage advice — the girl who will tell you of her hard-won lessons and build up your confidence before dates while she’s helping you blow out your hair.
Ballerini's latest single, "Peter Pan," has not flown to the heights of her first two, although it is by far her Swiftiest offering; the video’s a desert-set romance that opens with a vocal-fried monologue about love and a "happily ever never" pre-chorus. "Peter Pan" is also Ballerini's most aggressively pop song. It bloops and bleeps softly underneath the power chords, like Selena Gomez fronting Sugarland. “Peter Pan” suggests that Ballerini’s songwriting, like Swift’s, will deepen with experience, or, perhaps more aptly, as country's Top 40 makes space for more than a singular female country archetype. But for now, she handily dominates the school of not a girl, not yet a woman.
For songs that recall the nostalgic, Nashville-pro, high-school-obsessed "You Belong With Me" Swift, you can't do better than "Underage," the song that closes Ballerini's debut album, The First Time. "Underage" references "R. Kelly on the radio," and it's a little more bad girl than Swift was back then — the title is a nod to underage drinking and fake IDs. Album opener "XO" totally sounds like TRL pop with a banjo involved. The title track is not about what you might assume, but it's still a great melancholy ballad about a dude from the past you just can't get over. "Sirens," meanwhile, is Ballerini's own "I Knew You Were Trouble," utilizing a wailing harmonica as a siren sound effect to lament falling for a bad boy.
There is enough banjo and harmonica all over The First Time to assure you that this is still a country album, even if there are also enough pop flourishes to let you know where Ballerini might be headed next. But why even bother crossing over into pop when you can dominate country in a very profitable lane of your own? The "Dibs" video shows Ballerini in her platonic-ideal mode: playing for a crowd of ecstatic, drunk, country-music-lovin' kids in snapbacks holding up signs proclaiming their adoration for her, like she's the human equivalent of frisbee golf. Whenever there is an important coming-of-age moment — a high school graduation, a first love that ends in tears — Ballerini will be there with boots on.