She’s hardly been gone from Country music’s charts but I think we have found the artist to take Taylor Swift’s slot at country radio after Taylor’s successful move to become the biggest pop star in the world. Kelsea Ballerini’s The First Time is a record which definitely shares a kinship with Swift, as both a strong songwriter with a point of view and from a musical standpoint, a record which — while wholly on the country/pop fence — is most-definitely a country music record.
“XO” starts out the record on a groove-filled 80s-inspired country/pop high and immediately showcases why Ballerini has been increasingly growing her fanbase. “Peter Pan” feels like it’s straight out of the Swift canon with witty and biting lyrics, including the phrase “you’re never gonna be a man, Peter Pan.” The first single “Love Me Like You Mean It” is still scoring with country radio. It’s a spirited slice of modern country/pop and serves as a great calling card but it may be one of the ‘weaker’ moments on a record full of strong moments, especially since it doesn’t really allow her to showcase her voice as much as other songs here do.
Anyone who has gone through a parent’s divorce will instantly recognize the anguish in the lyrics of “Secondhand Smoke “ while there’s the relatableness of young love found on Kelsea’s powerful self-written ballad “The First Time.” Inspiration comes in many forms of “Square Pegs,” a song really about finding your own way, no matter which way you choose an no matter how far outside the box (or shape of peg) you are.
There are plenty of clever lyrical moments, particularly on the playful future single “Dibs,” (it’s tailor-made for country music radio), “Stilettos, and “Yeah Boy.” Sirens has a smoldering Carrie Underwood feel to it that will likely serve Ballerini well if it’s ever sent to radio. The young twentysomething singer from East Tennessee is a star in waiting and there isn’t a moment of The First Time where she doesn’t showcase her ability as both a singer and a songwriter, the kind of artist that should break into the (mostly) boys club of mainstream country radio. It’s a record that could even be a transcending moment.