Kelsea Ballerini has a story to tell. It's the story of the last three crazy years of her life, from a breakup to the Grammys to a marriage and all the "life, growing up, self-discovery" in between.
If you heard her new album Unapologetically, it's a story you might already know. But on Friday at a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Ballerini made sure you heard it again.
"I don't know if you noticed, but we're playing the album," she said a few songs in. "Track 1 to Track 12."
It would've been a bold choice even for a veteran act, much less a 24-year-old country singer out supporting her sophomore album. But bedazzled in sequins and an even sparklier smile, Ballerini was bound and determined to do it her way, just as she has throughout her independent career.
Nights and shows like these might be what'll help Ballerini stand out in an overflowing crowd of young, female country artists – Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Cam, Carly Pearce, Margo Price, the list seems to grow every year. One fan even referenced the artist to whom Ballerini is most frequently compared with a sign reading BALLERINI/SWIFT 2020.
Saving all her big hits (Peter Pan, Dibs, Yeah Boy) for later, Ballerini, as promised, played Unapologetically in full, exactly as she wrote and laid it out. The album was divided into suites about love and uncertainty and encouragement, which gave Ballerini enough time to change outfits during a little pre-recorded V.O.
The full-album presentation worked not just thematically, but aesthetically, as the album's overall vibe matched the dramatic lighting and heart-shaped LED backdrop that changed with each song. Much of the night was awash in adult-alternative atmospherics – think Coldplay on Machine Heart or Ed Sheeran on End of the World – with most traces of country pushed aside. A couple of exceptions: The swinging, sultry Music and wry slow-dancer I Hate Love Songs, a song she said she initially doubted but now might be her next single.
Ballerini needn't doubt herself too much. One of Friday's highlights was High School, Ballerini's Swiftiest song (and perhaps not coincidentally, one of Unapologetically's best). It's a knowing look back at one's late teens from someone who's only a few years removed from them. And if that relatability wasn't clear in the moment, it definitely was by the time she got to the inspiring Legends, when Ballerini got so close to the fans down front it was at times hard to tell them apart.
Ballerini's opener, Walker Hayes – a fast-rising artist in his own right – went even further into pop world, trading almost every trace of twang for a mix of Macklemorean rapping over loping beats and island-vibe guitars. He, like Ballerini, told a story or two, especially on the personal Beckett and Craig, but it was those lightly rapped ditties like You Broke Up With Me and Kenny that got fans up and singing.
And that crowd – that was the other notable thing about this show. So many there were women and girls far younger than the venue's normal demographic, and most spent the entire show on their feet.
In a rare move at Ruth Eckerd Hall, the first few rows were cleared out to make room for a standing-room-only pit. It was about as close to an artist as a fan could ever be at that venue, and Ballerini took full advantage of it, frequently crouching and kneeling to sing directly to her fans, occasionally while holding their hands. She gave her red satin tour jacket to one little girl near the stage during High School, pulled another up on stage to show off her blue gown during Peter Pan, sang Unapologetically to another hoisted in her daddy's arms.
So young were these girls that they couldn't have understood all the life experiences Ballerini wanted to share, even when they knew and sang all the words. But the memory of how intensely she connected with them will probably stick a little while. The next time Ballerini has a story to tell, you better believe they'll be listening.
— Jay Cridlin