Kelsea Ballerini told a packed Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville she didn’t want to headline a hometown show until she sold out the historic venue.
That happened on Friday night (Nov. 11) on night two of the First Time Tour with rows of family, and friends grooving along to every hit as she sang the night away performing new arrangements of songs from her gold-selling debut The First Time.
Many of the ticketholders with seats in the center of the main floor were folks who know and love her best, including her former choir instructor at Central High school, Beckye Justice Thomas. She taught Ballerini in show and concert choir and remembers watching her sing in the school’s performance series Mighty Musical Monday’s at the historic theatre.
Taking those people on the musical ride of a lifetime was Ballerini’s No. 1 priority and that hit home during the encore when she walked out to the middle of the opulent hall to sing with them. Tears started to stream from her eyes as she recognized familiar faces standing just feet away.
“This is going to make me cry,” she said while strumming her acoustic guitar. “I’m really sorry. I have a lot of friends and family who are here tonight, and I just want to say, mom, thank you for being so selfless and moving with me to Nashville. Dad, thank you for being my No. 1 fan. To all my friends and family who are here, thanks for loving me.”
Then like a total professional, she re-focused and started to sing an angelic acoustic version of “The First Time.”
Ballerini showed she was born for the stage from note one of her current single and show opener “Yeah Boy.” And like many great East Tennessee entertainers who have come before her, she lives to tell stories. Between songs, Ballerini entertained her hometown crowd with tales of growing up in UT Volunteer country, writing music in Nashville and other artists she admires.
“Y’all,” she said, “I have to tell a story really quick: I got to interview Dolly Parton a month ago and I asked her all these questions. And the last question I asked her, I said, ‘Dolly, how in the world do you play guitar with your nails so long?’ She looks at me and she just goes, ‘Good.’ And that’s why she’s Dolly Parton.”
After she performed her new song “Roses,” her band left the stage and she took the spotlight solo with just an acoustic guitar.
“For those of you who don’t know I grew up here,” she said. “And I love Knoxville. I come back here all the time every time I can. I really do. And I went to Central High School. I eat at Calhoun’s all the time. I grew up going to UT games. So, it’s only fitting …”
That’s when she lit into the Volunteer anthem and Osborne Brothers classic “Rocky Top,” which was followed by a surprise appearance by Tyler Farr for an impromptu performance of “A Guy Walks Into a Bar.”
The two were in Chicago earlier this week performing at CBS Radio’s Stars and Strings Veterans Day guitar pull, and he happened to be playing a show at Cotton Eyed Joe just west of downtown on the same night as Ballerini’s Tennessee Theatre debut.
Next she ignited the stage with her full band on “Sirens,” which had her banging on a glowing two-piece set of neon drums. Then she breezed through “Underage” and the previously unreleased song “We Were Like.”
“How about that Morgan Evans,” she asked. “I’m going to have a lot of love songs on my next album because of that guy.”
The entire theatre lit up in cell phone lights for her third No. 1 “Peter Pan” and she sang with boundless power on the fiery “XO.” For the finale, her first No. 1 “Love Me Like You Mean It,” crew members appeared onstage to shower the whole place in glowing neon beach balls.
After the show, many fans made a bee-line straight to the nearby gelato parlor for post-show ice cream. A group of young ladies were overheard outside saying, “Thanks, mom,” thanking their chaperone for a fun girls’ night out.
For Ballerini’s first fans, the energy of the night was better than any family gathering, prom, wedding, high school reunion and UT football game combined.
The First Time Tour continues tonight (Nov. 12) in Atlanta and picks up Thursday (Nov. 17) at Joe’s Live in Rosemont, Illinois.