When Kelsea Ballerini did interviews last year for her largely upbeat “Subject to Change” album, she was in a tough spot, being in the public spotlight for her less cheerful personal state of affairs but having to affirm (as she did to Variety at the time), “It’s been pretty difficult, to show up and want to talk about a record that I love, and end up doing divorce press, you know?… This is not a divorce record.”

And yet, six months later, Ballerini is back with the surprise drop of an EP that is so single-mindedly about that split, it’s nothing but a divorce record. The only thing she’s got dibs on in “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” is filing court papers. And it’s fairly shocking — in a good way — to hear her baring her post-marital soul on record so soon after seemingly placing limits on how far what she was going through at the time needed to make its way into her music. Ballerini faced the quandary many country artists do: how to proceed in a genre where fans want to believe artists are keeping it real, when the realness has become a major mess. Her solution to that, now, is an unexpectedly savvy one: parcel all that pain into a dam-burster of a side project with no commercial expectations, no press (“divorce press” or otherwise) and no holds barred, before presumably getting back to the sunny side of the street.

Country music has hardly been without its D-I-V-O-R-C-E records, although, with Tammy Wynette being as far gone as she is, it’s not the stuff that comes up much in Nashville writers’ rooms. A couple of major maverick artists have focused virtual concept albums around their own splits — the Chicks (if you still consider them country) with “Gaslighter” and, in the Nashville mainstream, Carly Pearce with “29: Written in Stone,” both excellent exegeses of becoming an ex. Even those two albums, though, had at least a handful of tracks about something other than a triggering split, unlike Ballerini’s even more seriously focused EP. And the Chicks and Pearson albums found much of their power in songs wreaking some vengeance on allegedly cheating ways. Ballerini doesn’t allege anything but emotional neglect, and so in that way the closest real comparison would be Adele’s “30” — the extended ballad of a woman who instigated a divorce and wants the world to understand why infidelity isn’t the only reason for pulling the plug.

“The rumors [are] going round, but the truth is kinda nuanced,” she sings in “Interlude.” “I wanna set it straight, but my lawyer says I shouldn’t / And ain’t it like this town, to only criticize a woman / I’m blowing up my life, but I’m standing by the crater.” Maybe the best thing about “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” is how unvetted it feels — by the aforementioned lawyers, by record labels, but most of all, by too much vested self-interest in playing it completely safe. It has the bracing brashness of somebody who’s decided to unload first and overthink it later.


The singer has also dramatized the circumstances of a union’s unraveling with a stark, handsomely produced 20-minute short film she wrote and directed for “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat.” It follows, effectively, in the recent tradition of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” short in finding a singer directing a striking visual account of real-life moments when she felt knocked off-direction.

All of the aforementioned artists worked a decent amount of detail into their confessional accounts of splits — the red scarf; the Hollywood Bowl show where Natalie Maines contends she met her replacement — but Ballerini may have them all beat for the sheer volume of historical annotation she packs into six songs. It’s nearly a Wikipedia-esque accounting of a rise and fall, from a Dec. 2 wedding date (“Sometimes I still taste the Veuve”) to the move into a “a place with a view off of 8th Avenue” (where “we watched cars of bachelorettes” — pure Nashville signposting there) to mentioning her age at the highest and lowest points (23 and 29, respectively) to mentioning the year of a big fight before a big show (2019), just because these things mean something to her, not because it’s crucial for our understanding. With Ballerini doing all the writing either by herself or with key current creative partner Alysa Vanderheym, one thing that’s for sure is that none of this material feels focus-grouped — with a writers’ room often serving as Nashville’s own first point of focus-grouping.

That’s not to say that the songs always feel so strictly autobiographical that they lack for cleverness. Although there’s very little in the EP that sounds singularly country by genre, the wordplay of “Just Married” is very much in the vein of classic country songwriting, with “just” having twin positive/negative meanings — as in recent, and as in merely. At other times, though, this is country music as defined not just by three chords and the truth but three chords and the ruthlessness. “Long-distance texts, make-up-for-time sex”… “It stings rolling up the welcome mat knowing you got half”… “We had to get drunk o ever really talk”… “You didn’t ever want to leave the house, I didn’t want a family”… “Were you just blind? It’s not fucking news to you, babe”… As Olivia Rodrigo didn’t quite say: It’s brutal in there.

There are allusions to other songs, both hers (Ballerini describes buying a house with “a backyard for dibs”) and her ex-husband’s (“One day you’ll ask, ‘When was it over for you?’” she sings, rather obviously quoting Morgan Evans’ “Over for You”). The final song on the EP, “Leave Me Again,” is played by Ballerini on an acoustic guitar, and finds her at a more magnanimous point than most of the preceding numbers — “I hope when I see you that you smile / I hope that you find somebody new / I hope that you get the house, and the good wife, and the kids” — but not so magnanimous that she doesn’t reserve the emotional punchline for herself: “And I hope I never leave me again.” Ballerini fans may recognize this as a sort of rewrite of, or sequel to, “Miss Me More,” a No. 1 hit she had in 2017. The similarity may or may not be intentional, but the sentiment still carries a kick.

Ballerini has never made any secret of having Shania Twain as an idol, but it’s nice to see her breaking away from that here. Twain, when asked if she ever wrote any stark material that was directly about her divorce, affirmed that she had — and then she put that shit away in a drawer. Ballerini has proceeded past the “What Would Shania Do?” questions and gone her own different way here by leaving the drawer open, even if it’s highly likely we will see her in a sparkly bodysuit, spreading good cheer again, before 2023 is out. But tears and sequins make for a good balance, as she has discovered.

Kudos for the EP’s cover artwork, which apparently portrays the view from the Nashville penthouse that she describes sharing, unhappily, with her spouse, before quickly having to pack up once things really came undone. That view is of the one thing that is more ubiquitous now in downtown Nashville than pedal taverns: an unfinished skyscraper. It’s a good visual metaphor to front an EP that’s otherwise too concerned with blunt storytelling to indulge much in anything as unnecessary as similes.

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