Personnel: Jason Massey, Forest Glen Whitehead (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano, organ, drums, percussion, programming, background vocals); Josh Kerr (background vocals).
Recording information: Ronnie's Place, Nashville, TN; the Apartment; Treeman Studio.
Photographer: Jeremy Ryan.
There's an innocence to the title of The First Time that suits Kelsea Ballerini. Twenty-one years old at the time of The First Time's 2015 release, Ballerini sometimes skews herself even younger, singing of new loves and teenage dreams, and she shows a facility with modern R&B rhythms that marks her as young country singer. Beneath this guise, she's savvier than she initially seems, a strong songwriter with an assured grasp on her persona. At times, she may resemble a pre-pop Taylor Swift -- this is especially true of her ballads, a place where she reveals a vulnerability along with some narrative flair -- but Ballerini, despite bearing writing credits on every one of the album's 12 songs, is more a part of the Nashville machine than Swift ever was. Ballerini happily slides into bright, chipper tunes -- the sweet defiance of the lead single "Love Me Like You Mean It," the near-novelty of "Dibs" -- and the overall record bears a crisp, clean sheen that makes it ideal for radio. Despite such clear commercial intentions, the charming thing about The First Time is that it doesn't pander, never relying on either its shiny sound or cloying hooks. The songs and the overall feel are expert extensions of Ballerini's personality, one that's innocent but not naïve, one that's bright and hopeful but never cutesy. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine