Kelsea Ballerini on Hosting, Performing at CMT Music Awards: ‘It’s Full-Circle’

When the CMT Music Awards return to the Moody Center in Austin, Texas, for a second run in the venue on Sunday (April 7), five-time Billboard Country Airplay chart-topper Kelsea Ballerini will host the evening, guiding viewers through the performance-packed, awards-filled event. The awards show will air live on CBS and will be available to stream live and on-demand on Paramount+.



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“I think last year, with it being the first year there, the fans were so excited and you could really feel that in the room,” Ballerini tells Billboard via Zoom ahead of Sunday’s awards show. “I felt like that really translated to the folks at home watching. To be here again, I feel like we worked out any kinks that may have happened and now we’re comfy and we’re ready.”

This year, Ballerini is hosting the CMT Music Awards solo, after co-hosting the show for the past three years. In 2021 and 2023, Ballerini led the CMT Music Awards with Kane Brown, while in 2022, she co-hosted the show remotely.

“I was just joking that I’m not so much worried about messing up the prompter,” Ballerini says of this year’s solo hosting duties. “I’m a little more worried that there’s a lot of stairs and stage to navigate without an arm to lean on. But I think Kane taught me well, so I’m excited. The script is really funny, in my opinion. It’s light and celebratory.”

Ballerini will pull double-duty on CMT Music Awards night as not only host, but a performer. Last year, she poured the journey of pain and healing post-divorce into her acclaimed and Grammy-nominated project Rolling Up the Welcome Mat. But on Sunday, she will celebrate a decade in the music spotlight when she sings a reimagined version of her debut single “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Ballerini wrote the song alongside Lance Carpenter, Josh Kerr and Forrest Glen Whitehead, and after Ballerini released it as her debut single in 2014, the song became her first No. 1 Country Airplay hit.

“I wanted to bookmark it and wanted to find a way to honor that and also challenge myself to reconstruct it as a 30-year-old,” Ballerini says. “The message of it is still something I believe in, which is that you accept the love that you believe you deserve and we’re all deserving of good, loyal love. But how I would sing it now sounds different than how 19-year-old me recorded it. First of all, my voice has changed so much. When I listen to the original, my voice sounds so much higher, so I wanted to play in this lower register that I’ve gotten as I’ve grown up. I wanted to keep the integrity of the melodies that made it hooky, so you hear that in the chorus and you hear that in a mandolin or kind of like a synth in the background. It keeps the integrity of the original but moves it forward.”

Her role as host of the CMT Music Awards also marks a full-circle moment for Ballerini, who first attended the CMT Music Awards as a fan.

“My first memory of the CMT Music Awards was when I was in high school. I had just moved to Nashville and me and a friend waited outside of the barricade at the CMT Music Awards when they were still in Nashville. We just waited for artists to come over because we wanted to meet them and take pictures with them. I remember Keith Urban came over and I have a picture with him. As a fan, it was one of the craziest moments of my life, so it feels very full-circle to go from the kid outside the barricade to being the host of the show. That’s not lost on me and I’m very excited to be here.”

Looking back over her previous CMT Music Awards appearances and performances, she says a standout was last year’s performance of “If You Go Down (I’m Going Down Too),” when Ballerini was joined by top drag queen performers including Manila Luzon, Kennedy Davenport, Jan Sport and Olivia Lux.

“I think when I ride off into the sunset one day, that will be something that I will hang my hat on forever. I’m proud of that,” Ballerini says.

For Ballerini, one of the most anticipated moments moments during this year’s show will be the collaboration between Little Big Town and Sugarland. “I feel like that’s a country music team win,” she says. “I remember I saw them when they toured together when I was still in [Ballerini’s hometown of] Knoxville, Tennessee and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen. Then they did ‘Life in a Northern Town’ [with Jake Owen] at the CMT Music Awards and it was iconic, so to have them team up again, I’m excited to see what they do. I know what they are going to do, because [Little Big Town’s] Karen [Fairchild] is one of my good friends, but I’m excited for everyone else to see what they do.”

If she was given the chance to add one artist to the CMT Music Awards billing, Ballerini says one performer in particular immediately comes to mind: Beyoncé.

Ballerini says of Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter album, “I think it’s incredible, I really do. I think having one of the biggest superstars in music history make a country record is a team win for country. The record is so beautiful. That will absolutely be my getting ready soundtrack on Sunday.”