Hold the lettuce, please — Kelsea Ballerini’s single “Love Me Like You Mean It” officially captured the Number One spot on both the Billboard Country Airplay and Mediabase country charts this weekend, not only joining Carrie Underwood as the strongest female debut since 2006 but also setting a record for total weekly spins overall. In a moment thick with discussion about the presence — or lack thereof — of women on country radio, it’s not only a personal victory for the Tennessee-born songwriter, but a polite kiss-off to those who said only men can be the main ingredient in airwave success.
“When we picked ‘Love Me’ as a single, I believed in it so much,” Ballerini told Rolling Stone Country at the CMT Music Awards earlier this month. “But to see it actually being embraced has been so incredible, especially as a new female artist. It makes me excited, and really proud.” Just last year, Ballerini was at the very same awards show — but as a fan, showing just how quickly her debut LP The First Time has gained traction in the male-dominated marketplace.
“I was sitting up on the sides,” recalled Ballerini, who also performed at this year’s ceremony. “I watched the whole thing, thinking, ‘I wonder if one day I can be a part of this?’ It’s warp speed, but it’s amazing.”
Some early championing from Taylor Swift, whose pre-pop era influence can certainly be found in Ballerini’s music, didn’t hurt, and now news of “Love Me” hitting Number One has drawn praise and support from some of country’s biggest names on Twitter. Little Big Town, Maddie & Tae, Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and Underwood, who hash-tagged her message “#GirlPower” and “#WomenRock,” all congratulated her on the feat. Martina McBride, who has been quite vocal about comments made by a radio consultant about women’s place on country radio, tweeted “congrats to fellow tomato.”
“There are two women in the top five in country right now,” said Ballerini, addressing Keith Hill’s statements that she and other female artists should be the garnish to dominating male-driven hits in the salad of country radio. “I’m lucky enough to be one of them, Carrie is the other. . .call it what you want, I’m happy to be a tomato.”
Despite the significance of Ballerini topping the charts (her record label, Black River Entertainment, even circulated an image of her posed and dressed as the iconic Rosie the Riveter), it’s still a difficult time for women in country radio. Kacey Musgraves’ “Biscuits” didn’t crack the Top 40 on Billboard’s Country Airplay and was yanked from rotation all together. It puts a lot of hope — and pressure — on Ballerini, who isn’t particularly intimidated by either.
“I’m ready to keep getting more music out there,” she says, hinting about her next single and its “hey!” chorus, presumably the Kesha-esque mid-tempo “Dibs” (Swift openly rallied on Instagram for the First Time track “Yeah Boy”). “We’ve already picked it. I really wanted people who knew ‘Love Me’ to hear this next song on the radio and know it’s me, that’s the ‘Love Me’ girl. It creates a sound that people know is me.”
Ballerini is only the 11th female artist to have her debut country single reach Number One. Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith first did so in 1964 with “Once a Day,” while Underwood most recently achieved the milestone with “Jesus, Take the Wheel” in 2006.