As a country music fan, you just want to proudly be able to profess to people your appreciation for this music that you hold such a passion for. You want to believe in its institutions, and that the best and the brightest of a generation are foisted forward and given the greatest opportunities. As a country music fan, you don’t want to have to qualify you fandom with asides such as, “No, not that stuff they play on the radio,” or “No, not that stuff you see on awards shows,” or “No, not that performer they just invited to join country music’s most prestigious institution, The Grand Ole Opry.”
It’s not that Kelsea Ballerini is the absolute worst pick the Grand Ole Opry could have made for its newest member, but it’s darn close. A few years ago, Kelsea was on the cutting edge of the incursion of pure pop into the country genre, and it’s only now that we’re trying to combat the efforts of performers such as Maren Morris, Kane Brown, the perversion of Mitchell “Bitches” Tenpenny, or the proliferation of the completely-forgettable Dan + Shay that Kelsea Ballerini has moved on from being the center target for the ire of true country music fans to simply a side concern.
But Kelsea Ballerini as the next member of country music’s most hallowed institution? This is just as quizzical of a pick as last summer’s decision to invite Dustin Lynch, if not more.
Every individual country music fan is going to hold their own opinions on who should be the next Grand Ole Opry member, and it’s impossible to please everyone with every decision. But when fielding a list of Grand Ole Opry hopefuls, Kelsea Ballerini would be just about one of the last names you would throw in the hat. In fact she would probably be one of the first names you’d push to the side to immediately consider out of the running for such a distinction for a host of reasons—the undeniable fact that she’s a pop star carpetbagging in the country music space being just one of them.
Kelsea Ballerini’s own fans won’t care about this, because they don’t care about the Grand Ole Opry, aside from the few Kelsea Stans who will be super happy to hear she’s received some sort of distinction, as they pull up the Grand Ole Opry Wikipedia page up on their phones to figure out what the hell it is. Even for Kelsea Ballerini’s own career track, she doesn’t need to be hanging around Nashville playing for buses full of blue hairs and being broadcast on AM radio. She needs to be out there on tour in important opening spots, developing her fan base.
A Grand Ole Opry membership will be more of a burden than an asset for Kelsea Ballerini, while much more deserving artists could really use the boost this distinction affords, and would be much more willing to regularly play for the nominal compensation Opry performers earn compared to regular tour dates.
Beyond taste or measuring how pop a particular performer is, there is certain technical criteria and qualifiers one can call upon to determine who should receive the Opry’s next invite that is agnostic to taste, like previous performances on the show, or the possibility they will adhere to the Opry’s wish to perform at least 10 times a year. Every year the great Byron Fay of Fayfare’s Opry Blog breaks down performances over the year to see which Grand Ole Opry members are paying their Opry dues, and which non members are making strong cases for themselves to receive invites by showing loyalty to the institution. In 2018, Kelsea Ballerini’s name doesn’t even show up in the list of non member performers who spent significant effort playing the Opry.
The names that do show up are the names that would be much more deserving of this distinction, names such as William Michael Morgan, who played the Opry 16 times in 2018, Charles Esten, who has been the Opry’s performer-on-call for the last few years with 21 performances logged last year alone, or the Father of Americana Music, Jim Lauderdale, who played the Grand Ole Opry 13 times in 2018 as a non member. If this is about boosting a woman forward, why not choose Carly Pearce who played the Opry 15 times in 2018, Holly Williams who’s been one of the Opry’s most prolific performers for the past few years, or Elizabeth Cook? How about Jamey Johnson, who says was supposed to be a member already, or Miranda Lambert?
Chris Janson was a controversial pick when he was invited to the Opry in early 2018. Some of his songs are outright terrible, and though maybe not as pop as Kelsea Ballerini, they’re much more worse from a songwriting standpoint. But Chris Janson had spent years showing loyalty to the Opry, both in playing regularly as a non member, and being willing to play classic country songs that the Opry crowd is there to hear. Kelsea Ballerini has none of this on her resume. Neither did Little Big Town when they were inducted in 2014. They were the ones to officially invite Ballerini into the Opry Tuesday night (3-5), and they only played the Opry 6 times in 2018 themselves.
This decision smacks of wanting to push a female artist forward in a genre that is struggling to break and support women in their careers. But Kelsea Ballerini underscores one of the issues of why women continue to fail to find traction in country, which is the fact that many of these new performers aren’t country at all. Pop will always have its place in country, and it always has. But country should have a place in country music too. It was that pragmatism of mixing pop with the roots of country that resulted in Kacey Musgraves’ award-winning Golden Hour getting multiple Grammy Awards. It’s being purely pop that is holding many of “country” music’s young women back on radio, in tour slots, and at festivals. They simply don’t belong, not because they’re not men, but because they’re not country.
Meanwhile Kelsea Ballerini has been leading this recent charge by many of “country” music’s newest female stars in covering and collaborating on pop songs to try to get attention for themselves. In January, Ballerini made headlines when she covered “Lost in Japan” by Shawn Mendes as part of a Spotify Singles release. Last year she guested on a single from The Chainsmokers. In fact pulling up Kelsea Ballerini’s officially Spotify playlist, it’s called Pop Picks, and features no country artists at all. Instead, it includes songs by Post Malone, Bebe Rexha, Ariana Grande, and The Chainsmokers. Why doesn’t Kelsea use her position of prominance as a rising woman in country to promote her fellow women artists? Saving Country Music’s playlist has way more women of country on it (and more followers, btw).
Every sign points to Kelsea Ballerini wanting to have no business with country music, beyond leveraging what she can for radio play and tour slots. And now we’re inviting her into country music’s most hallowed institution? Kelsea Ballerini, like Taylor Swift before, is simply using country music as a stepping stone. But at least Taylor Swift spent time opening for George Strait, covering Tim McGraw, and at least trying to ingratiate herself to the genre. Kelsea Ballerini’s idea of paying country dues is covering Taylor Swift’s “Delicate.”
This is nothing against Kelsea Ballerini, or her music specifically. Compared to the caustic, arrogant and down-looking personality of Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini is harmless. Compared to the abominable efforts by many of country’s current mainstream males, her music is probably an improvement. But Kelsea Ballerini is a pop star, which isn’t an offense in itself, until you start parading her around as country, until you start pushing more worthy artists who’ve devoted their lives to country music out of important distinctions like invitations to join the Grand Ole Opry. Then it becomes the biggest problem of the moment.
Sorry Grand Ole Opry, but this is a terrible pick.