Photo taken by Daniel Prakopcyk
Ballerini returns to her hometown of Knoxville to perform her first headlining arena performance. She discusses her one-night-only show, music, life and more.
It’s been over four and a half years since Kelsea Ballerini last played a show in her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. She returns on Thursday, November 2, to perform at a sold-out Thompson Boling Arena in her first headlining arena performance, “The Homecoming Show”. Ballerini spent time on a phone call this week with Ablaze to discuss her music, this show, and Knoxville.
The Beginning of an Idea
After a colossal whirlwind of a year, Ballerini wanted to go out with a bang and knew just the place to do so.
She began her “Subject to Change” tour last September and during that time released her EP, “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” which is full of emotions as she processed her divorce from fellow country music artist, Morgan Evans.
The songs immediately began to gain traction with Ballerini’s fans and from there it all seemed to fall into place. She and her team wanted to put a “big bookmark” on the end of this year because it is such an important year in her life.
They wanted to make it special and include as many people as possible to signify the end of one chapter but also a kickoff to the next.
“I am so protective of playing my hometown because I want it to be special every time and I played my high school gymnasium, the Tennessee Theater, the Civic Coliseum, and I knew that the next step was to play the arena and it’s a big step going from 7,500 to 14,500 people but if there’s any year to jump it’s this year and if there’s any place to do it, it’s home,” Ballerini said.
Her Monumental Year
From touring on her own or with Kenny Chesney, creating new music, releasing a short film, appearing on Saturday Night Live and gracing the cover of TIME magazine, this year has been full of milestone moments. What sticks out the most to Ballerini was the first time she performed 'Penthouse' in Manchester, England.
“When I made this music I never had the intention of playing it live but I was realizing that people were really connecting with it so I wanted to try it out. I just got this full-body feeling when I played 'Penthouse' and the only other time that I’ve had that feeling was when 'Peter Pan' was a hit on the radio. This is something…bigger than me, and all I need to do is keep showing up for it,” Ballerini said.
Acknowledging Her Vulnerability
“Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” was released in February and “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat (For Good)” in August. The most recent version of the EP reflects the changes in Ballerini’s life since its initial release.
“It’s definitely been the most impactful music I have released. I made the whole EP very quietly, I had just released 'Subject to Change' and started touring that and was just really quietly writing 'Rolling Up the Welcome Mat' to process my life and make an understanding of what was going on…my intention was truly to put it out, talk about it once, and leave it. It just didn’t happen that way. Every single day since that came out it’s been me warming up to the idea of talking about it more, or being more vulnerable, or singing one more song from it in the setlist,” Ballerini said.
With her audience connecting so strongly to the songs, it became more successful than she ever imagined.
“As I thawed to the idea of it becoming a staple in my life and my career I wanted to keep telling the story and bring people more up to speed so that was kinda the idea of doing “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat (For Good),” Ballerini said.
At 15, Ballerini moved from Knoxville to Nashville with her mom, Carla Denham, to pursue her country music dreams. Ballerini says that experience was terrifying but would never admit that at the time because she was so stubborn.
“To make that big life move at that age, I felt a lot of pressure on myself to make it and figure it out somehow. I left my dad, I left my friends...I left my childhood and I really started over again,” Ballerini said.
Although she felt the pressure, Ballerini always trusted her gut which was telling her she would make it work in some capacity.
“I didn’t really know what it was going to look like or what kind of stage it was going to be on, but I knew that I would make music my livelihood. I didn’t give myself another option, I had no plan B,” Ballerini said.
Finding Her Way Home
Although Ballerini is based in Nashville and spends time in Los Angeles and New York City or wherever else her busy schedule takes her, she looks forward to returning home to Knoxville for a visit. Ballerini says she will always love coming home to see her dad, Ed Ballerini, and even visit Calhoun’s to get her favorite chicken fingers.
Growing up in Knoxville, Ballerini got to see some of her favorite musicians come through town as a kid including the iconic Britney Spears.
“My first concert ever was at Thompson-Boling Arena, Britney Spears, so to be able to go back and play at the same place I saw my first concert and it was Britney, I mean, I have no words for it. It’s crazy,” Ballerini said.
Giving Back to Her Roots
Although not an official graduate of Central High School, it played a crucial role in Ballerini’s life during her early teenage years.
“If there were two years of my life that I could say were the most impactful as far as making me who I am, I would say this last year and my sophomore year of high school. Central was the place where I got involved in the choral department, and I started singing songs that I had written on stage, and found a beautiful friend group, at the same time my parents were getting divorced and all these other things were happening that were really difficult but it really made me who I am,” Ballerini said.
Her appreciation of what the school provided her as a teenager is why Ballerini is giving every Central student two free tickets to her show.
“I owe a lot of my growing up to that school and a lot of the inspiration of really trust-falling into music from those two years of being involved in that choral department,” Ballerini said.
Advice to the Twentysomethings
The intense pressure on young women whether that be socially or appearance-wise can be a lot but Ballerini wants to let them know it’s okay if it’s a mess.
There’s no need or requirement to have everything figured out and it is okay to be unsure or all over the place; it is all part of the process.
“I wish I would’ve given myself a little bit more grace… in my early twenties, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” Ballerini said.
Through her partnerships with Covergirl and Aerie, Ballerini has been able to influence a new generation of young girls.
“I love partnering with brands that align with the music that I make which for me is all about self-reflection and empowerment even through vulnerability and you know, a little glitter and a little sass,” Ballerini said.
Passion for Storytelling
Ballerini has been writing songs since she was young, and it continues to be one of her favorite aspects of the music industry. The song she is most proud to have written is “Leave Me Again.”
“To me, I can hear that I was raised on country music when I hear that song. I can hear that I’ve studied the craft of storytelling and truth-telling and I’m really proud of the way that was shown in the songwriting of that song,” Ballerini said.
As a songwriter, Ballerini has a great appreciation for other writers and their work. There are many songs that she loves including: “The House That Built Me” by Miranda Lambert or her all-time favorite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.
“The Homecoming Show” will be Ballerini’s largest show to date and no doubt the most anticipated considering Knoxville is where her love of music first began years ago.
“We’re moving from three buses to eight, from 33 crew to 79 crew, there’s pyrotechnics…it’s crazy, it’s the biggest show I’ve ever done. I’m so excited,” Ballerini said.