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Tortuga Music Festival: Kelsea Ballerini calls dibs on country

Check out an interview with @KelseaBallerini, who plays @festivaltortuga

There was Kelsea Ballerini onstage two weeks ago at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, performing the breakout single “Love Me Like You Mean It,” a song that had achieved a bit of history in 2015 when she became the first female artist to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart since Carrie Underwood nearly a decade ago.

That night, the 22-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., native would take home the ACM’s best new female vocalist award thanks to “Love Me” and the follow-up Top 10 single “Dibs,” from her debut album, “The First Time.”

Resplendent in a leggy blue evening gown, Ballerini had just made the segue from “Love Me” into her new single, “Peter Pan,” when leather-jacketed dance-pop singer Nick Jonas strolled onstage for a duet. It was perhaps an unsettling visual for country-music fans, a reminder that pop music’s insatiable appetite for pretty, young talent in other genres is always ready to swallow up a young star such as Ballerini. Just ask Taylor Swift’s country fans.

“I’m not gonna pull a Taylor Swift. That’s not gonna happen. I love country music, and there’s a reason that I made a country record. You know what I mean?” Ballerini says during a conversation from her tour bus in Athens, Ga. Ballerini is coming to South Florida April 16 to perform at Fort Lauderdale’s Tortuga Music Festival.

Ballerini knows the Swift model intimately: The two have been social-media besties for a couple of years, after Swift discovered Ballerini’s music on her eponymous 2014 EP. During a Nashville stop on her 1989 Tour in September, Swift brought Ballerini onstage for a duet on “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Comparisons between the two gained traction in the country-music press.

“That was the coolest moment of my life,” Ballerini says. “If there’s anyone that I could have a sliver of similarity to, it’s Taylor. It’s flattering when people compare us, and I adore her as a human just as much as I do an artist.”

Ballerini has been known to spike her sets with snippets of songs from Rihanna, Britney Spears, Destiny's Child and the Backstreet Boys. “Love Me,” “Dibs” and the first song released off her album, “XO,” include some hip-hop phrasing and a light drum-and-bass undercurrent.

But Ballerini wants to be clear: She’s a country artist.

“I pushed boundaries on my record, and made it as country-pop, as country-R&B, as country-whatever as I felt right about. And that’s where I’ll live,” Ballerini says. “The thing about being a country artist is you write songs and sing them, and it comes from an honest place. And if you honestly grew up on a farm in east Tennessee and you went to Britney Spears for your first concert, then that’s the record you should make. And so that’s the record I tried to make.”

Ballerini believes that being open to diverse influences has become a strength in country music.

“Right now, radio, for whatever reason, is super-receptive to people blending country with their other influences,” she says. “And I think that it’s helping our genre expand. I mean, look at Sam Hunt. He’s killin’ it.”

Kelsea Ballerini will perform 3:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Tortuga Music Festival.

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