Amy Richmond

Kelsea Ballerini’s Pre-Fame Days in Nashville

“It Was Two Years of My Life of Getting to Be a Normal College Student"

Not many artists apologize if they are a few minutes late for an interview. After all, they’re being pulled all different ways and forced to talk to so many different people, particularly early in their careers. It’s almost normal to be late.

Kelsea Ballerini — “I’m 23, just a kid” — immediately asks for, well, if not for forgiveness then at least for a bit of understanding.

“I totally apologize for being late today,” she says. “I’m being like the total artist today: I’m running late for everything.”

It’s almost like she’s apologizing for arriving late to class at Lipscomb University a few years ago.
Although, looking her up in my old grade books, it seems like most times, at least, she was not only to class on time, she participated and did quite well.

As a journalism adjunct at Lipscomb (aka journalist-in-residence), I teach the writing labs in the communication and journalism department. The basic premise of all my labs — whether for the beginners or the more experienced — is to help the young people improve their writing skills.

I don’t know if I helped her or not, but she has become a fine writer … of songs.

Even when she was taking my classes and the rest of her university load, she was writing two full days a week for Black River publishing on Music Row.

One day the lively blonde looked up from her computer in the writing lab — that’s styled after a newsroom — and a bright smile was on her face.

“I signed my deal today,” she exclaimed on the day she finally got her publishing contract with Black River.

The very attractive young woman — I can say that now, since she’s no longer my student but now holds her own in the glamorous world of show business — who always seemed so eager to do well in class could be forgiven for being a little distracted that day.

Still, she remained attentive and charged full-speed through her writing drills.

Ballerini was a sophomore at the time and on that day she knew her days of higher education would be put on hold as she followed her dream.

“Me and my mom made a deal that if something would happen to help me get my start in music, I could get out of college,” she says. “It was like, ‘OK, Mom.’”

From there, she began her rapid climb to a pinnacle that now has her nominated for Grammy as best new artist — in any genre.

“The Grammys to me, well, that’s my peers. That’s the industry thinking what I do is good,” she says, adding that it was “so cool” when she found out about the nomination. She had hoped to get a Grammy one day, but had no idea she’d get a nomination while still, as they say, wet behind her ears.

”That’s like the industry saying ‘we embrace this … we like this,” she says, bubbles in her voice. “The fact it’s an all-genre category makes it more exciting.’’

Fellow nominees in that all-genre Grammy category include Maren Morris, Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak and the Chainsmokers.

While the Grammy nod excites her, it’s not that she has suffered from a lack of recognition in the four years since she left her textbooks and classrooms and battered, old adjunct profs behind.

She had three consecutive No. 1 singles from her debut album, The First Time. Two songs went platinum — “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Peter Pan.” Another track, “Dibs,” is certified gold.

She also was dubbed “The Country Sweetheart” among People magazine’s “Ones to Watch.” collection. Billboard has dubbed her “Country’s Next Queen,” and she was named new female vocalist of the year at the ACM Awards.

And those are just for starters in her highlight-strewn resume. The Grammy nomination is big, but “everyone on my team celebrates every single milestone,” she says.

On the day of our conversation she had just completed her first headlining tour, playing smaller venues.

“The most rewarding time of my career so far is to have 1,200 or 1,300 people there who know every word,” she says.

The largest venue held 2,600 people singing along with Ballerini.

“It was super fun,” she says.

Her climb has been rapid, but she hasn’t yet approached the top of her “to-do” list: “My biggest dream is to headline an arena tour.”

Even as her voice is coated with excitement when talking about her skyrocketing career, she fondly looks back to her two years at the university in the Green Hills section of Nashville.

“It was two years of my life of getting to be a normal college student, stay up all night and study for finals,” she recalls. “Having friends and stuff that weren’t in music. … I would be really sad if I didn’t have that.”

Seeking her destiny in Music City, the Knoxville, Tennessee, native chose the small Church of Christ-affiliated university so she could be near the music business.

And in many ways, she was just a normal, fairly spunky Lipscomb student, who participated in social club variety shows as well as burned the midnight oil on her studies.

“I feel like there are a lot of songs I put on my album that are about those in-between years,” she says. “I did a lot of that at Lipscomb.”

While Ballerini’s career sizzles now, she didn’t start at the top when she convinced her mom it was a good idea to quit college.

She spent one full year writing songs, did a yearlong radio tour and “I’ve been doing the artist thing for about a year and a half.”

“When we were writing this album, me and my friend were writing songs that we thought were fun. It was us being so naïve.”

Perhaps. But it worked.

“I got the headlining tour off that,” she says.

Ballerini takes none of it for granted.

“There’s so much luck involved, it could end tomorrow,” she says.

But by the tone of her voice, it’s obvious she doesn’t really think it’s going to end soon.

“You know, I dreamed of it happening like this,” she says. “I’ve always been a big, bold thinker and a dreamer. This was a big dream.”

Tim Ghianni is a freelance writer and author based in Nashville. He also continues his role as “journalist-in-residence” at Lipscomb University, where he has worked seven years.