What Kelsea Ballerini’s Success Means for Women in Country

Kelsea Ballerini recently made history with three consecutive chart-topping singles, but what does that mean for other women in the format?

Written by Chuck Dauphin
What Kelsea Ballerini’s Success Means for Women in Country
Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for ACM

It’s sometimes ironic how trends go into the music business. In the fall of 1985, The New York Times ran an article talking about how Traditional Country music was on its’ way out. Within months, artists such as Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam were beginning to dominate the charts with their (what?) back-to-basics approach.

Fast forward to last May and June, when the Country Music world was set ablaze by radio consultant Keith Hill’s proclamation that female artists in the format were similar to tomatoes in a salad, with the male artists being the lettuce. A lot of people took offense to the comments, but Hill did have a point. The amount of attention given to female vocalists not named Underwood or Lambert was very miniscule – and that’s putting it mildly.

However, just a few weeks later – on July 4, a news story hit that shot (to some degree) a hole in Hill’s theory. Kelsea Ballerini topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart with her debut single “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Was it a sign of something about to change within the industry or a mere blip on the radar? In Ballerini’s case, one couldn’t help but root for the Knoxville songstress. The song was infectious enough, and spend any amount of time with her, and you just can’t help but cheer her on. Of course, being able to obtain the endorsement of Taylor Swift for that spot that she singer left behind when she focused her energies on Pop.

Then, in March of this year, Ballerini did it again. With her second single, “Dibs,” the singer notched her second number one hit – proof that something was working with fans as well as radio. Obviously focused at the younger demographic that Swift mined so well, the song also began to score with the 35-54 demo, helping her to make it two for two. A true trend or a record label working behind the scenes, making deals to help a record move? Again, here is where the story gets even more interesting. Black River, her independent record company, makes money – make no doubt about it. But, the label doesn’t have the bargaining power with other acts to broker deals to raise Ballerini’s profile.

And, now she has done it again. “Peter Pan,” the third single from her debut album, has just made her three for three on the Airplay chart – while also hitting the apex of the overall Hot Country Songs list – a career first. This song – in a lot of ways – is a total game-changer for Ballerini. In my mind, this removes any doubt in my mind that this could be record company smoke and mirrors. It cements her as the real deal, a status she should enjoy for a while.

So….what does it mean for the format? That is the big question. A year and a half after “Tomato-Gate,” things do look different. In addition to Kelsea, Maren Morris has picked up ample career steam, and her future looks to be bright. But, we could stand some more female artists doing well. Mickey Guyton and Lindsay Ell are just two of a long list that should be known a lot more than they are. That being said, due to the success of Kelsea Ballerini, the odds of that happening are a lot better than they were one year ago – and that’s a very good thing, indeed!