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Ballerini's rise in country comes with Buffalo connections

At 23, Kelsea Ballerini is dominating the younger side of the country music scene. Her debut album, “The First Time,” led off with three No. 1 singles: “Dibs,” “Peter Pan” and “Love Me Like You Mean It.”

After a run opening for Rascal Flatts, Ballerini is now on her own headlining tour, which includes a sold-out show Dec. 3 at the Town Ballroom (681 Main St.).

Young as she is, Ballerini’s success has been in the making for years – and there’s a strong Buffalo connection. Terry and Kim Pegula are the owners of her Nashville record label, Black River Entertainment. Kim Pegula's brother, Gordon Kerr, is the label's CEO. He's the guy who first signed Ballerini, as the singer recalled in a recent interview with The News.

Here’s how it happened: At 15, Ballerini moved to Nashville from her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. Her networking efforts in the country music capital included friending industry people on Facebook, then posting songs and videos and hoping “someone would watch it and like it.”

Ballerini, pictured performing in Tennessee in November. (Getty Images)

Ballerini, pictured performing in Tennessee in November. (Getty Images)

It worked. Someone from Black River Entertainment saw it and brought Ballerini, by then 19, to see Kerr. She played him a couple of songs on guitar; he signed her to a publishing deal.

For much of the next year, Ballerini spent her days at the Black River, writing music that, if deemed good enough, would be meant for other artists.

But Ballerini had other goals. She wanted to be the performer.

“I really wanted to be an artist,” Ballerini said. “So anytime I had a song I really liked, I would pop into Gordon’s office and play it for him.”

It worked. Again. Black River signed Ballerini to a record deal.

“I got to experiment for a year with songwriting. I got to write so much stuff with so many people. I got to really find myself through being a songwriter, and everyone there got to watch that process. They saw me find my sound and my first group of songs.”

For the last two years, Ballerini has been working her way up in country music and beyond. Ballerini built credibility within the industry through country radio airplay and appearances, including a spring 2015 appearance at WYRK’s Acoustic Show, which was followed by an impromptu performance of "Dibs" at the station's after-party.

She’s been a regular on awards shows, TV specials and guest gigs, including a cameo role on the country music drama “Nashville.”

Ballerini also gained notoriety outside traditional country circles. Her youth appeal has made her a Radio Disney mainstay, and her Pegula connection put her in front of sports audiences, too, including fundraisers hosted by the Buffalo Sabres.

“Love Me Like You Mean It” is platinum-certified. “Dibs” and “Peter Pan” are gold. That’s made Ballerini the only female artist in country music to reach No. 1 with the first three consecutive singles off a debut album.

“It's been very hurry up and wait, because ever since I moved to Nashville when I was 15, to when I put out ‘Love Me Like You Mean It,’ it was a very slow process,” Ballerini said. “But as soon as things started working, the last two years have been pretty non-stop in the best way.”

Ballerini is gaining mainstream celebrity status quickly in People magazine and on NBC’s "Today" show, for example, and a story about her new Nashville townhouse — a sleek, white, trendy space appointed with full-size guitars mounted on the high wall of her kitchen.

Which begs the question: For a young celebrity who presumably needs to maintain some semblance of privacy, why let the rest of us in?

“I really enjoy letting people in and sharing a lot about myself and my life,” Ballerini said, “because that's what I chose to do with my first album as a songwriter, to write about my life, and I like that people know to expect that from me, and not have any surprises.”

She does maintain limits. One time, after a large country music industry event, she escaped for a few days to be alone in a cabin.

“I just try to be sure I stay in touch with myself and know that it's OK to recharge and say no sometimes to take time to be a 23-year-old,” said Ballerini, who counts Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott as a mentor and big-sister figure. Scott even brought Ballerini food on that cabin getaway.

Ballerini told The Hollywood Reporter that Scott has helped her to be a “human first and an artist second."

“(It’s) creating value in friends and family,” Ballerini told The News, “and creating time to step away and separate it so you can have that healthy balance.”

PREVIEW

Who: Kelsea Ballerini

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 3

Where: Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.

Tickets: sold out

Info: 852-3900, ticketfly.com

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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