Driving directions to Wednesday’s (Oct. 12) No. 1 party for Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” did not include following the second star on the right and straight on till morning.
But there were several teal signs directing guests to her “Neverland” private event at the Averitt Air hangar next door to Nashville International Airport. Once inside, guests were greeted by a fleet of charter planes parked in a row in the open hangar door and one lone Learjet backlit in blue and roped off by red velvet ropes in a corner.
High-top tables and plush couches were available for guests to lounge in while sipping signature “Fairy Dust” cocktails mixed with Deep Eddy vodka. Some partygoers wearing official green Peter Pan hats with red feathers meandered through the crowd.
Minus the cinematic desert, the whole place looked like it was straight out of the official “Peter Pan” music video. And at least two flights took off over the course of the two-hour event while Ballerini and her co-writers Jesse Lee and Forest Glen Whitehead were showered with plaques commemorating the history-making hit.
When the soaring ballad went No. 1 on Sept. 12 — her 23rd birthday — Ballerini became the only female artist in country music history, including female duos and groups to have three consecutive singles from a debut album all reach the top of Billboard’s country airplay chart.
Joined by all three writers on stage, ASCAP’s Mike Sistad started the plaque presentations by congratulating Ballerini on her banner year, which now includes two 2016 CMA nominations and a new American Music Award nomination for favorite female country artist.
“Peter Pan” is Lee’s first No. 1 as a songwriter and Whitehead’s second as a songwriter and third as a producer. He co-wrote Ballerini’s breakout hit “Love Me Like You Mean It” and produced all three of her back-to-back No. 1 singles. Co-producer Jason Massey was also on hand to accept plaques for his work.
BMI’s David Preston congratulated Lee and presented her with a commemorative mint julep cup and black acoustic guitar — a traditional first No. 1 gift for BMI songwriters.
After clearing the stage of hardware and plaques, Lee was the first songwriter to speak and came prepared with a page of typed out thank you’s. She recalled for six months she had been stewing on the line, “You’re never going to grow up. You’re never going to be a man, Peter Pan,” and was waiting for the right opportunity to use it.
“I told them the idea and said, ‘If we don’t kill it, I’m going to go rewrite it with other people,’” she said. “And their jaws kind of hit the floor. And they’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anyone say that to people.’ From the second that we wrote it, we knew we had something really special. It was just one of those songs that fell out of us with such ease that the only thing I can say is there must have been fairy dust in the room that day. It was one of the most effortless writing sessions I’ve ever had.”
She also revealed that the song also pitched to Kimberly Perry for The Band Perry before it ultimately landed on Ballerini’s debut album, The First Time.
“She wrote an email back and said, ‘I love it, but I don’t know if my brothers are going to want to sing this song,’” Lee shared. “I never thought I’d be excited to say that I’m glad that she passed on it. And it was always [Kelsea’s] baby, and you did an amazing job.”
When she spoke of her parents’ unwavering support, her voice began to quiver with emotion. But she shed no tears.
“I wanted to give up more times than I remember and now standing on this stage I thank God I didn’t,” she said.
Whitehead kept his speech brief, thanking Ballerini’s home label Black River Entertainment for their work promoting the song.
“Thank you, Jesse, for sharing such a great idea and lighting that fire and making it what it was,” he said. “And thank you, Kelsea, for just believing in us and working with us and being there and for believing in it when maybe not everybody else did.”
When it was Ballerini’s turn to say her thank you’s, her co-writers were the first priority.
“I want thank these two because I think that as a creative person, the biggest gift you can give another creative person is to share your creativity,” she said. “And that’s what these two people do with me. We all stepped up our game and wrote a song that I really think I’m the most proud of that I’ve ever written.”
The speeches were followed by acoustic performances of “Peter Pan” and “Yeah Boy” and a surprise gold plaque presentation by Black River’s Gordon Kerr commemorating Ballerini’s The First Time selling more than 500,000 copies.
“If it’s something that I’ve learned in the last six-and-a-half years,” Kerr said, “it’s that it takes every single one of you to be able to allow us to celebrate a day like today.”
It is the stuff of fairytales — watching an independent label take off with history-making three back-to-back hits from a debut album by a solo female artist.
Ballerini will receive the breakout artist of the year honor at the 2016 CMT Artists of the Year event, airing Oct. 20 at 9 p.m. ET.
Ballerini’s First Time Tour launches Nov. 10 in Washington, D.C. The Nov. 11 show at the Tennessee Theatre in her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, is sold out.