It’s a common misconception that country music is just for the South. While Nashville is certainly the heart of the industry, country music is less about cowboy boots and pickup trucks than the stories surrounding them, and these stories translate to suburban New Jersey just as well as they do down South.

It was just over three years ago, in January 2015, that Knoxville native and longtime Nashville resident Kelsea Ballerini performed in New Jersey for the first time. She was supporting The Voice Season 2 contestant RaeLynn, and was fresh off the release of her self-titled EP. All five tracks on the EP would go on to be included on her 2015 debut album The First Time, and she’d go on to return to New Jersey several times, for headlining shows at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, as well as amphitheater shows in Camden and Holmdel supporting Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum.

For the Unapologetically Tour, Ballerini was joined by Walker Hayes. Their show at Starland Ballroom had sold out well in advance, and a packed crowd was already in attendance by the time Hayes took the stage. There are some opening acts that try their hardest to win over new fans, but Walker Hayes didn’t have to try – even if you didn’t know the words, his songs were the type that made you want to sing along and guaranteed a good time, from “Break The Internet” (which, per the chorus’s suggestion, made everyone “want to shake, shake a little bit”), “Dollar Store” (which featured looping vocals and guitar riffs and was preceded by an anecdote about how he takes his kids to the dollar store on their birthday to buy them anything they want “so they think I’m rich”), to “Beckett” (a song he declared “one of my favorites to play live” because he gets to hear his son’s voice on the track)

Every track that Hayes performed told a true story, but it was his new single “Craig” that proved to be the most moving of his set. Introduced as “as true of a story as it gets,” “Craig” was written about a man named Craig that helped out Hayes and his family in a time of need. “I was at a point where I didn’t want to accept any help, and he taught me a lesson about loving people who are different,” Hayes admitted; the two are now good friends. To end the set, he played “You Broke Up With Me,” the breakout single for which he’d received a platinum plaque the night prior, and “Shut Up Kenny,” a tribute to his “favorite country artist of all time, Kenny Chesney.”

Before Kelsea Ballerini’s performance, representatives from local country radio station Thunder 106 took to the stage. Thunder 106’s Michael Ryan talked about the first time Ballerini had come to the station, not even three years ago: he dared her to shoot a Nerf gun, saying that if she made it, he’d play her record – and she did it on the first shot. They also shared the news that their recent radiothon had raised a total of $153,427 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Country music has its own glitz and glam, but it’s combined with a casual ease that makes it feel all the more elegant. Kelsea Ballerini would change clothes a few times in her set, but each outfit featured plenty of glitter, rhinestone-covered fishnets, and high-heeled, glittery black boots with silver stars, but she’s just as comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans when not performing, and had a sense of ease in her stage presence that was entirely down-to-earth.

As she’d explain a few songs into the set, Kelsea Ballerini decided to play all of the songs from Unapologetically in album order for the tour. The album tells a story – starting with a break-up, then going to self-discovery and growing up – and performing it in order is her way of letting the fans experience that with her: “I guess that I’m a little bit old school, and the way you get to know someone is by listening to the whole thing,” she explained.

The stage is rather close to the crowd – but nevertheless, Ballerini hopped off the stage more than once to sing directly to those standing on the sides, and made frequent use of the catwalk so she could get even closer to the fans up front, several of whom had brought homemade signs which she’d read and smile it, even wishing one fan a happy birthday.

It was “In Between” – a song about the time when you realize you’re past your youth but still have a lot of growing up to do – that got the first round of applause of the night, but it wasn’t the last. That track was followed by “High School”, which impressed fans not only with its guitar solo but with the extra personal connection Kelsea made with fans: she donned a red and white varsity-style jacket for the song’s performance, which she explained she always gave to “someone who’s made an impact on me”; at the Starland show, the jacket was given to a fan named Alanna who had been to twenty shows “and has become a friend.”

While the songs themselves told a story, Kelsea’s anecdotes between songs made it all feel more intimate. When introducing “I Hate Love Songs,” she talked about performing at the Grand Ole Opry: she’d written two hundred songs for the album that would become Unapologetically, and decided to give some of the extras a home in her Opry performance. Performing them on such a legendary stage made her realize she’d made a mistake: “I Hate Love Songs” belonged on the album – and it was a good choice she’d ended up including it, because as she shared next, “I heard it on the radio for the first time yesterday.”

After a medley of “Unapologetically” and a few bars of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, Kelsea introduced her band mates – some of whom she’d been playing with since the release of her first EP.  “Legends”, the closing track of the album, felt perhaps the most significant in the performance, as it was dedicated to all who’d supported and believed in her music: “I wrote this song a few years ago and it changes meanings but one of the meanings… whether you’ve been here an hour and a half or for four years, this song is for you.”

For the “encore” (which happened at the close of the night, though only moments after “Legends” concluded), Kelsea returned for some older tracks (cuts from the EP and The First Time): “Peter Pan” (for which she donned a long, pink, sequined cardigan), “Dibs” (where she was joined on stage by a young girl named Abigail who “just melted all of my heart”), “Yeah Boy,” and finally, “Love Me Like You Mean It.”

It’d be traditional to go out with a bang, something over-the-top; but Kelsea was sure to mention that she “wanted to end every night on this tour how everything started for me and that is me and my guitar, and me and you.” Instead of being joined by her band, she picked up an acoustic guitar and sat on a stool at the front of the stage.

“I’ve never given this spiel before,” Kelsea confessed but was nonetheless confident in what she had to say. “On my first record, I wanted to have this message of empowerment – that we deserve to be loved SO good. Girls, if your man doesn’t love you- bye! If he is not good to you, if he doesn’t make you feel like a queen – BYE!” The night’s rendition of “Love Me Like You Mean It” may have been stripped down, but it was full of just as much passion and heart as the rest of her set. You may not consider yourself a country music fan, but a Kelsea Ballerini show just might change your mind.

Walker Hayes
 Kelsea Ballerini

Kelsea Ballerini is on tour now in support of her album Unapologetically. After the current round of headlining dates wraps up, she’ll be on the road with Keith Urban this summer; head to her website for a full list of upcoming shows.