For country singer Kelsea Ballerini, home will always be Knoxville, Tennessee, even though she has lived half her life in Nashville. The two cities are forever linked, each accounting for roughly 14 years of her journey. As a young girl in Knoxville, Ballerini led worship at Fountain City United Methodist Church and participated in glee club at school. Nashville’s 16th Avenue, with its recording studios and radio stations, was not yet in her sights.
“Growing up, I loved music, but I didn’t think you could just choose to be an artist,” explains Ballerini. “That didn’t make sense to me.” Thankfully, what makes sense to a child is—like the title of her new album—subject to change.
“I have always said I am a writer way before I’m anything else,” Ballerini states, whose book of original poetry, Feel Your Way Through, was published last year. “My parents got divorced when I was twelve, and that was the catalyst for me.”
What began as an outlet for adolescent emotion developed into a passion. “I was smitten,” she recalls.
Ballerini and her mom drove three hours west to Nashville on weekends to learn about the country music industry. At age 14, during her first meeting with a prospective label, she was told that her blonde hair, original songs, and country-pop sound too closely resembled teen sensation Taylor Swift. The feedback forced Ballerini to focus on what kind of artist she wanted to be.
Now, comfortably ensconced in her home office, the newest face of COVERGIRL looks back on the path she took from her childhood farm in East Tennessee to the five-bedroom Nashville house she lives in today. With each step in her career came another change of address.
At 15, she and her mom left Knoxville behind, moving to a house in Franklin, just outside the state capital. “In hindsight, my life could have gone in so many different directions,” says Ballerini. “The idea of making music for a living saved a lot of my teenage years,” she says.
After graduating from high school, Ballerini enrolled at Lipscomb University, where she studied communications. “My mom and I made a deal that I would go to college until I could make some sort of a living off of music,” she explains. “I would go to school Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” she recalls. “Then Tuesday and Thursday were my music days, so I would co-write, or play whatever venue would let me play.”
Like AnnieLee Keyes, the protagonist she voiced in the Audible recording of Dolly Parton and James Patterson’s thriller Run, Rose, Run, Ballerini had to get creative to get noticed.
“I used to not even be able to get into The Bluebird [Café] to play, so I would sit on the railing and play for the line of people as they walked in,” she shares. “I was and am really determined. I feel like if there’s not a space that’s ready for you, then you just make your own space.”
As a college sophomore, Ballerini claimed her space by landing a publishing deal with Black River Entertainment, the same independent label that represents her today. Having held up her end of the deal with her mom, Ballerini left school and traded her dorm room for a studio apartment.
Her debut album, The First Time, bowed in 2015, boasting three singles to consecutively hit number one on the charts. Ballerini says her third song, the double-platinum “Peter Pan,” “is the one that really changed my life.”
Soon after, Ballerini upgraded to a one-bedroom apartment, then to a townhouse, and later, to a condominium in The Gulch. Each move came alongside career-defining firsts—first number one song, first invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, first tour—as well as countless accolades, including Grammy Award nominations, Academy of Country Music awards, Country Music Association awards and the iHeartRadio Music Award for “Best New Artist.”
Additional albums followed, as well—Unapologetically in 2017 and Kelsea in 2020 —with hit song after hit song, including “Hole in the Bottle,” “Miss Me More,” “I Quit Drinking,” and of course “Half of My Hometown,” featuring fellow Knoxvillian Kenny Chesney.
When everything shut down in March of 2020, Ballerini did what millions of people did: she stayed home. Until then, condo living had appealed to her.
“I could just shut the door and not worry about it,” she says. But during the pandemic, Ballerini discovered that she wanted more space. “I have a dog, and I grew up on a big piece of land,” she says. “I realized that I needed to connect with that part of myself again. It’s a small lot; it’s half an acre, but it’s just enough for this chapter of life.”
In November 2020, Ballerini purchased a modern farmhouse with a yard big enough for her labradoodle, Dibs, to run around. She sold her condominium and everything in it, down to the silverware. The only things she took with her were three paintings by her paternal grandfather and a quilt by her maternal grandmother.
Starting with nothing was “terrifying,” says Ballerini, who tackled the house in phases. She hired interior designer Lindsay Rhodes, whose work she had admired in friends’ homes.
“I felt like my style was changing a bit,” explains Ballerini, who described her condo’s décor as whimsical and over-the-top. “I still love an element of patterns and color and texture, but I wanted this house to be a little more mature feeling,” she explains, adding that the white walls throughout gave her anxiety.
“I’m a maximalist and I love wallpaper,” says Ballerini.
A romantic rose pattern from House of Hackney adorns her office walls; the tearoom walls—and ceiling!—are draped in a Gucci floral print; and in the dining room, a graphic wood wallcovering by Philip Jeffries blankets not only the walls, but also the built-in seating and the base of the custom table.
For Ballerini, the challenge with this house was turning each big, white room into a space “where you could cozy up in a corner with a book,” she says.
The solution was using darker colors, different textures and overstuffed furniture. Her office is a prime example of that, with the dark blue cabinets she painted herself, the moody rose wallpaper and the sheepskin rug.
“If I am working from home in any capacity, whether it’s Zooms, writing, or whatever, I’m here,” she says, while seated at the desk in her office.
“It’s become such a safe, creative place for me. I come here in the morning with a cup of coffee and just sit with my guitar and play for a little bit. Or I pull up a blank Word document and see if I have anything that feels inspiring.”
Ballerini has a close-knit group of female friends whom she calls her “ride-or-dies.”
When she wants to play them a new song—perhaps one from her latest album, SUBJECT TO CHANGE, which drops September 23—she invites them into her office to hear it.
When she needs to get ready for a formal event, she sits down in front of the mirror at her desk, and her hair and makeup team gets to work.
Along the wall are eight framed photographs memorializing iconic moments from her career.
“For me, getting an award or a trophy is super cool, and I’m so grateful, but those aren’t the moments I’m going to remember,” she explains. “The moments I’m going to remember are the ones that I have here.”
Walking to that wall, she points to each one, like a docent at a museum.
“This one is when Little Big Town invited me to become an Opry member. This is when Taylor [Swift] had me out to sing with her in Nashville on her 1989 tour. This is when I got to sing my song on the CMA’s and Reba [McEntire] sang my song with me,” she says, clearly tickled by the memory.
“Both of these are hometown shows, when I played in Knoxville,” she says, signaling to two more photos.
Then she points to one taken at the 2019 CMA Awards. “This is Garth Brooks giving me a hug backstage, after he’d won Entertainer of the Year.”
The last one, she says, “is backstage in my dressing room, because all the good stuff happens backstage. This is my friend Halsey, and Reese Witherspoon. We had just taken a tequila shot,” she says, laughing.
Getting the chance to work with country music legends from Shania Twain to Kenny Chesney and even Dolly Parton only made Ballerini admire them more.
"Working with Shania and Kenny and Dolly, you realize they are there because they show up, and I mean that in every sense of the word," Ballerini explains. "They show up early. They show up prepared. They show up knowing who they are talking to, and just being present. With all three of them and the ways that I got to work with them, it was just really good to see that good people win, and win big."
Above the nook on the opposite side of the room are two floating shelves with a carefully curated assortment of treasures that encapsulate who Ballerini is and how far she’s come.
“I don’t have many awards, so I say this with humility,” she begins, “but I’m weird about having accolades in the house. I don’t want a shrine of myself, so, I picked the ones that really meant something to me and then put them up here.”
On the far right is a CMT Artist of the Year trophy.
“This was the year that I was honored as Breakout Artist and Shania was honored as Lifetime Artist,” she explains. “I got to sing for her, and it was the beginning of this amazing friendship/mentorship that we have now, so this says Shania to me.”
In 2020, Ballerini released a remix of “Hole in the Bottle,” with Twain adding both her powerful pipes and her signature sass.
The shelves also feature a photo of her at the Grammy Awards with her mom, whom she had promised to take as her date if she ever got nominated; three books of poetry that inspired her to write her own; a miniature replica of the emerald green dress Dolce & Gabbana made her for the ACM Awards; and a picture with her dad after she came offstage at her hometown arena in Knoxville.
“Playing that show and having my dad there was just a whole moment,” she says.
When Ballerini isn’t hard at work in her office, she is often in her gorgeous kitchen cooking, or entertaining friends. “I learned that I love to cook over the pandemic,” she explains. “Now that I’m home a little more and have a bit more balance in my life, I really enjoy cooking for people. I think it’s the Italian in me that’s like, ‘Let me feed you pasta and here’s some wine,’” she says.
Her dining room was designed with entertaining in mind, as evidenced by the banquette seating around the quartzite-topped table. From Friendsgiving to New Year’s Eve, the table for twelve is often full. “Sometimes we’ll do family style, where everyone will bring something to prepare,” she explains.
Other times, Ballerini hosts friends for an evening of Sequence or Yahtzee, so she had a dining table custom-built to split into two halves.
“You can separate them and push them farther into the bench seats,” she explains. “On game nights, the teams will be at their separate tables on opposite sides of the room.”
Ballerini also loves to lounge in her tearoom, where Dibs makes himself right at home on the curved, midcentury velvet sofa.
When the weather is nice, Ballerini heads outside, to one of two outdoor spaces she created. She hung a twin-sized porch swing in the cozy, screened-in patio, which features a fireplace, TV, and tons of blankets and pillows.
The other area is one she added on and refers to as Tulum, a nod to her favorite spot in Mexico.
“It really feels like you’re on vacation,” she explains, “so anytime I need to feel like I’m taking a little trip to Mexico, I make a margarita and go sit out there.”
Soon, Ballerini will board her bus and begin a ten-city tour. After announcing her separation from husband Morgan Evans, she is excited to share the music from her new album, which focuses on growing up and the changes that occur in relationships and within yourself.
"This is the first album where I didn’t worry about being a role model," Ballerini explains. "Instead of writing for other people, I wrote for me. It really changed the way that I perceived myself and perceived my art and what I have to contribute to the world. Like, 'Oh, you’re allowed to grow up. You’re allowed to say how you feel. You’re allowed to mess up and you’re allowed to own that too.'"
Her own maturation has included accepting who she is and what she has, which inspired her final track, “What I Have.” Her Jeep, her dog and “what they call a dream job” all make the list. But central to the chorus is the roof over her head. We can see why.
Photography Leslee Mitchell
Interior Design Lindsay Rhodes Interiors
Styling Molly Dickson
Hair and Makeup Tarryn Feldman
Prop Styling Elizabeth Ulrich
Production Mollie Jannasch/Agency MJ
Video Editing WesFilms
Cinematographer Tyler Barksdale
Booking Talent Connect Group