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Kelsea Ballerini Talks CMT Music Awards, New Song: ‘It’s a Celebration of Country Music’

Monday evening (April 11), Kelsea Ballerini returns for a second year as co-host of the CMT Music Awards, this time alongside actor Anthony Mackie. And this year, the entirely fan-voted awards show levels up to a bigger platform, with its global premiere on CBS. The show has aired on CMT since 2002. In conjunction with the show’s premiere on CBS, the CMT Music Awards will also stream on Paramount+.

In addition to co-hosting, Ballerini will perform her new song, “Heartfirst,” and is a three-time nominee at this year’s ceremony. Two of those nominations, for video of the year and collaborative video of the year, recognize her work with fellow east Tennessee native Kenny Chesney on “Half of My Hometown.” She is also nominated for CMT performance of the year for her duet with LANY’s Paul Klein on “I Quit Drinking,” from last year’s CMT Music Awards.

Over the course of her career, Ballerini has already proven herself as a multi-faceted singer, songwriter, media presence, author (last year, she released the book of poetry, Feel Your Way Through) and most recently, the newest face of CoverGirl. For the country star, co-hosting is another outlet that allows her to showcase her abilities as a singer, performer and entertainer in a myriad of ways.

“I feel like it’s a show that I get to wear all the hats at,” Ballerini tells Billboard. “And hosting lets me unleash my inner fangirl, which I always try to protect to the death — so to be able to perform a new song and be nominated, to go into fan mode and host, it’s exciting.”

Ballerini spoke with Billboard about the CMT Music Awards, her nominations, new music and what she learned from former tourmate Kelly Clarkson.

Last year, you co-hosted the CMT Music Awards alongside Kane Brown. You have also previously hosted events including a CMA Fest special and Greatest Hits. What have you learned about hosting that you bring into this year?

It’s more about being part of the energy in the room. With the CMT Music Awards, it’s a celebration of country music, of the fans, what they want to see. So it’s less about making sure everything is perfect and more about making sure everyone is having a good time and feeling the love. I definitely felt that last year as a host, and this year, it’s on CBS and it’s bigger and better. With Anthony, we want to make sure we keep that energy up.

What has it been like working with Anthony?

We got to do the Grammys together and have a good rapport. We’ve only had a couple of script read-throughs and we don’t get to the actual building until Saturday, but the writing for the show is really good, really light and happy.

How involved are you with the script writing process?

I have opinions. We had the first script read, and I think I have an artist’s perspective, and having that in the room is important.

With the show being live, do you ever worry about something not quite going according to plan?

If it happens, you just laugh it off. I try not think about that. One of my favorite artists is Kelly Clarkson and I got to tour with her. I’ve really tried to learn from her. She has a way of just…when things go wrong, she just handles it with such humor, and that’s what makes me love her as a fan. I think as long as I’m in the moment, I can handle whatever happens.

Two of your nominations are for the video for “Half of My Hometown,” directed by Patrick Tracy. What does that mean to you to have this video recognized like this?

That video was an emotional three days [of filming]. I went home to Knoxville and went to my high school. My dad was with me the whole time — I had my friends that still live there in it. It was just a really beautiful few days, and the whole story of the video is the hypothetical life I would have had if I had stayed. It’s a beautiful life, it’s just not mine. Being able to honor the place that let me go, to be able to be here now, and have a song about my hometown that just went No. 1 [on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart] and have a video that is in my hometown… it’s the best way I could say thank you.

“Half of My Hometown” is your fifth Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 hit — and during the show, you will be introducing “Heartfirst,” a song from your upcoming album. How would you describe this new song?

I really like to zig-zag with singles. “Half of My Hometown” is a story song, a ballad — so now it’s time to go back to a bop. I wrote “Heartfirst” with [Little Big Town’s] Karen Fairchild and with Alysa Vanderheym. It is just a ‘90s-inspired, breezy, roll-your-windows-down, summertime song. I’m excited to start the next chapter.