I recently read Waking Up In Nashville, a book published in 2002 by British travel writer Stephen Foehr. He came to Nashville and navigated the scene from an outsider’s perspective and expertly delved into the idea of ‘what is country music.’ This was in the early 2000s, so the traditional country fan’s anger was directed at pop-country stars like Shania Twain and Faith Hill. But the overwhelming consensus from the dozens of people he interviewed is that country music isn’t pretty. It isn’t happy endings and perfect nights. It’s real life. At the time that Foehr wrote this book, Alan Jackson had recently released his song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” a song about the horrors of the September 11 attacks. Country music tackled this issue in a way no other genre did and that’s what country music always does. Country music goes into the gritty details of real life like no other genre, and that’s the reason that so many people love the genre so much. But when a ‘country’ artist releases album that has very little real life and a lot of picture-perfect high school life, it’s hard to connect that record with the heart and soul of country music. Kelsea Ballerini’s debut record The First Time doesn’t really match up to the roots of country music, but did blow up the country music scene in 2015.
The first song that Ballerini released to country radio was “Love Me Like You Mean It.” This is a pop-focused, barely country record that you either loved or you hated. It’s fun, it’s flirty, and goddamn does Ballerini have writing pop melodies DOWN. This song is addictive and catchy and I’m pretty sure I had it stuck in my head for all of 2015. But it’s a tricky situation because although this song going No. 1 was a huge victory for women in country music at the time, it wasn’t exactly the country music that people were hoping would bring women back into the country music scene. It’s a kind of female form of bro-country. All fluff, all fun. Ballerini then released “Dibs,” which is basically the same song with different lyrics and a slightly different melody. And sure enough, this song when No. 1 as well. So, by the time her record came out, this was Ballerini’s artistic persona. Her music made it seem like she was okay with being the “girl in the country song,” the girl who loved sitting on a tailgate and being that girl that all the guys in country music loved to sing about. First impressions are hard to change, and this record likely changed very few people’s minds. It’s not that there aren’t some solid songs on this record, but most of them are the same version of Ballerini that she sold to country radio. “Looking At Stars” is a bro-country song. “XO” is basically a Sam Hunt song. “Sirens” edges on being an interesting record, but the overproduction of her vocals ruin it. Even “Underage,” which sounds almost like a ballad at the beginning of the song, feels like a bro-country song. This record is a perfect example of a genius business decision. Her label saw that women making unique, interesting music wasn’t working so they found a woman who was okay with making a bro-country record in her own voice. Not my cup of tea, but it’s hard to deny the genius of that plan.
The radio persona definitely dominates this record, but when Ballerini is real, she’s real. She doesn’t write piercing lyrics like some of her songwriting counterpart in Nashville, but they’re simple and direct. They definitely get the point and the emotion across. The song “First Time” was the general public’s first introduction to this other side of Ballerini’s artistry. Her career has been littered with Taylor Swift comparisons, but I think this song is the closest Ballerini has ever gotten to a ‘Taylor Swift song.’ She clearly describes the scene of waiting for someone to show up who never does, leading into the hook of: “That’s why goodbye should be goodbye the first time.” The song is a little too produced for my taste, but it’s a country song through and through. It’s also a perfect song for Ballerini’s voice. She has a very emotive voice, if not the strongest, and songs like this bring that quality to the forefront. “Secondhand Smoke” is the only other time on the record that the listener can actually feel like they learned something about Ballerini. A lot of the record is very surface-level, but this song digs deeper. It’s a song about Ballerini’s experience growing up with parents who got divorced and how she grappled with that. “Am I a product of a problem that I couldn’t change? I’ve got his eyes, got her hair, but do I get her mistakes?” are some of the strongest lyrics of the project. Ballerini has spoken many times about being vulnerable in her songwriting, but this is the only time on this record that she is actually vulnerable. “Peter Pan” and “Stilettos” are the only other emotional songs on the record, and they suffer from a common problem found on this record: they’re just overproduced. To me, this record sounds like a demo recording, like they couldn’t afford to use instrumentals. I know the choice of using computers was definitely a conscious decision, but it sounds slightly empty and bare. Besides that, the lyrics that make up these two tracks are also incredibly solid. Ballerini definitely can write, but I think she didn’t really play with what she is capable of doing on this record. But it is her debut, so who can blame her.
No matter how much I like some of the songs on this record, it’s hard for me to ever really get past the fact that this feels like the kind of record that rich girl in high school had her parents pay to have made. Unapologetically, her sophomore effort, is a fairly good record and feels more real than this one. The only songs that somewhat make this record feel like it’s about real life are “First Time,” and “Secondhand Smoke.” The rest of the record feels forced and fake, like a girl shoved into a Mickey Mouse shaped mold of pop-country (See: “Square Pegs” which actually did get quite a bit of airplay on Radio Disney Country.) She’s a songwriter first and she’s pretty good at that. But this record was obviously carefully executed and planned in order to get airplay on the radio. It’s hard not to sacrifice artistry when that’s your main goal. The First Time was Ballerini’s first record, and likely her worst.