Counterpoint: Kelsea Ballerini Is Our Grammy Girl
A debate between Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris for the Best New Artist trophy at the 2017 Grammys could be cast as a debate between "Peter Pan" and "My Church," but it's not that simple. Both artists will admit that without those singles they wouldn't be included in the conversation. This Point/Counterpoint is also framed by how one views what the award represents.
For Morris, the Platinum selling "My Church" is her only major hit to date but it's likely her second single "80s Mercedes" will top the charts before spring. "Peter Pan," an aching ballad about a guy who refuses to grow up, is Ballerini's third single, third No. 1 and third Gold certified song. The Knoxville, Tenn. native should win the Best New Artist award at the 2017 Grammys because at this point she's simply done more, and if history holds true she'll continue to do so.
One need not look far for a reasonable comparison. In 2009 Ballerini's friend and mentor Taylor Swift was up for this award but lost to Amy Winehouse. Addictions and bad behavior aside, there is a parallel. Swift was and is a pop-leaning star with catchy songs about love and heartbreak that doesn't fit everyone's definition of what an "artist" should be. Winehouse was a dark enigma and a tortured artist. We only knew her through her songs, and the mystery was fascinating. It still is, in fact, nearly six years after her death, but had she lived, it's foolish to believe she'd be as successful as Swift is today.
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Like Winehouse, Morris is a quieter celebrity who chooses to speak through her music first, and her music naturally appeals to smaller cross section. She's anti-pop, which is part of what makes her so exciting. Miranda Lambert is probably a better comparison — both Texans are very gracious in a one-on-one setting but more reserved elsewhere — but she was never nominated for this award.
"My Church" sold a million singles but peaked inside the Top 10 on country radio. Morris' Hero album is a critic's dream (it made ToC's Top 10 list of 2016) but the sales numbers haven't exploded yet. With other females like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, Morris stands poised to change the way country radio sounds in a positive way but it's early to declare mission accomplished.
Don't overlook or under-appreciate the doors Ballerini kicked open when her first single "Love Me Like You Mean It" topped the charts in 2015. It was a nearly three-year drought between No. 1 songs for a female country artist at that point, and she got it done on a small, independently run label. There were seemingly insurmountable obstacles that she overcame with a charming smile, infectious songs and genuine personality. This should sound familiar because it's how Swift operated a decade ago.
"Dibs" was more snack food than her debut but "Peter Pan" hits the heart hard. It's more accessible, which doesn't impress the cool kids in class, and it may not impress Grammy voters. The 23-year-old's long resume should however. Her slower, more successful road to the Best New Artist nomination deserves to be rewarded.
The ceiling is very, very high for Kelsea Ballerini.
The Boot and Taste of Country’s collaborative Point / Counterpoint series features staff members from the two sites debating topics of interest within country music once per month. Check back in January for another installment.
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