Her high school choir teacher Beckye Thomas was there watching on the main floor as Ballerini sang the night away performing selections from her gold-selling debut The First Time.
On Saturday (Oct. 28), Ballerini will return to her alma mater Central High School in Knoxville to kick off the album launch week for her sophomore release Unapologetically. Like the Tennessee Theatre, Central High is another sacred place in Ballerini’s history.
Before she moved to Nashville, Central was the beginning of her musical journey and everything she experienced there served as the inspiration for some of her earliest songs. The first time she ever performed an original she wrote was on Central’s stage.
“Those are the years in middle school and high school where you feel awkward,” Ballerini told CMT.com. “Those weird tensions of your first crush, your first heartbreak, girls being mean, social media coming up and body image issues — I walked through all of that at that school.
“Plus, I was really serious about moving to Nashville and being a singer. And so those two years were just me writing like crazy.”
Ballerini wrote more than 200 songs over a three-year period for what would become Unapologetically.
“I’m so proud of it, but this was such a different journey because I knew that I was writing for a record this whole time,” she said. “As I was listening to my favorites I thought, ’I just wrote about my life, I might as well put them in order and really lay it on out there.’ I think that was my biggest goal is that I wanted to be a true songwriter with this record.”
The result is a beautiful album that evokes the life-shaping journey of what everyone on Earth was born to do, and that is to love and be loved in return.
“I really wanted to put songs like ’Graveyard’ and ’Miss Me More’ on there because everyone gets in a relationship and loses themselves,” she said. “And you always talk about the fact that you’re sad about the breakup, but you don’t ever talk about the fact that you lost yourself. I feel like it’s important to talk about it — to show that side and be vulnerable in that, because that’s when you’re at your strongest.”
The latter half of the album transitions into themes of being fulfilled by love — a direct result of her current relationship with her fiancée Morgan Evans. She wrote the title track three weeks after they first met at an awards show they were co-hosting in Australia.
“We’re each other’s biggest fans and we know that,” she said. “And so we’re able to be super transparent with each other, and it’s cool because he helped me with live stuff because he’s been touring since he was 14. And I help him with U.S. radio stuff because I’ve been doing it for a couple of years. We’re able to help each other in our strengths. And it’s just really good.”
Her friend Taylor Swift is also a big fan of Ballerini’s new music. Swift’s Reputation arrives on Nov. 10 a week after Unapologetically lands on Nov. 3. And both artists head to the 51st annual CMA Awards on Nov. 8 as nominees.
Ballerini is up for female vocalist of the year, and Swift is nominated for song of the year as the songwriter for Little Big Town’s “Better Man.”
“She’s hilarious and very supportive,” Ballerini said.