Grammy-nominated country singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini surprised fans with an ironic Valentine’s Day release of her new EP “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” detailing her divorce from fellow country singer Morgan Evans.
On the six-track EP, Ballerini – in true country fashion – writes with intimate honesty accompanied by a 20-minute long, “All Too Well”-esque short film she wrote and directed to depict the demise of her marriage. Ballerini takes control of her narrative for the first time since she announced her divorce and received incessant criticism, backlash and rumors from Evans’ fans and the country music industry as a whole last year.
On the opening track “Mountain With A View,” Ballerini responds to Evans’ “Over for You,” a song which he released just weeks after their split while the two were still in the midst of divorce proceedings. Evans writes, “I would have searched the whole world over for you / Took a flight through the night to be that shoulder for you” and asks, “How long has it been over for you?” Ballerini replies, “Scream I’m just like my parents and giving up easy / But you never took that last flight to see me” and “I realize you loved me much more at 23 / I think that this is when it’s over for me.” The direct parallels between their songwriting captivated fans’ attention and shed light on their five-year public relationship that began when Ballerini was rising to fame at 22 and Evans was 31.
In “Just Married,” Ballerini plays off of the dual meaning of the word “just.” She sings, “But I wasn’t made for fixing a plate or keeping our problems buried / I wasn’t strong enough to hold on with all of the weight that I carried / Yeah, it was love, then it was just married.” With vivid details, including the pair’s real-life wedding date of Dec. 2 and the Veuve Clicquot champagne served at the reception, listeners can visualize the “beautiful wedding” that would eventually culminate in a messy divorce.
On “Penthouse,” perhaps her most personal ballad yet, Ballerini gets candid about how assets were divided in their divorce with a line derived from the project’s title – “It stings rolling up the welcome mat / knowing you got half.” Ballerini appeared on the “Call Her Daddy” podcast last week and told host Alex Cooper that, despite their prenuptial agreement, her ex-husband was entitled to half of the house that she paid for. She describes how their initially-idyllic move to a penthouse on 8th Avenue in Nashville quickly took a turn, “I guess wrong can look alright / When you’re playing home in a penthouse, baby.”
Although it’s a mere 45 seconds, “Interlude” may be the most brutally revealing track, not only on this project, but in Ballerini’s entire career. The experimental, genre-bending track deviates sonically from the rest of the project yet stays true to the core of who Ballerini is as an artist. Her honest songwriting describes the sexist treatment she faced throughout their divorce within the country music industry – “The rumors going ’round, but the truth is kinda nuanced / I wanna set it straight, but my lawyer says I shouldn’t / And ain’t it like this town to only criticize a woman?”
“Blindsided” continues the theme of “Mountain With A View” by responding directly to Evans, who claims he was taken aback by their divorce. Ballerini questions this, explaining that the couple had marital troubles throughout the course of their relationship. She asks Evans, “Were you blindsided or were you just blind?” The bridge delves into a “big fight” before the 2019 Country Music Association Awards. Ballerini slept on the couch the night before but had to keep up the appearance of her marriage on the red carpet the next day. That night, she gave an emotional performance of her single “homecoming queen?” – a song Ballerini called “a metaphor for somebody that seemingly has it all together and polished from the outside looking in.” The stripped-down performance struck a chord with audience members and, with this new perspective, fans can see why.
The project comes to a close on an uplifting note with a more traditional country sound in “Leave Me Again.” The ballad examines a more positive side of Ballerini’s view of Evans. She wishes him well and hopes he will find everything he wants out of life while acknowledging that “Staying only made me get real good at pretend / So I hope I never leave me again.”
It’s clear that Ballerini has entered her prime as an artist. She said on Instagram that “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” has already outperformed the first week of her previous record “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” by millions of streams with seven fewer songs than the full-length album. Taking notes from experimental country divorce records like Kacey Musgraves’ “star-crossed” and The Chicks’ “Gaslighter,” Ballerini is sharing her side of the story. She’s finally finding her sound, and she won’t be quiet any longer.
This article appeared in the February 27, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.