Ten years ago, Kelsea Ballerini was just one more country-loving teen edging her way into meet and greet lines at CMA Fest, Nashville’s annual country music fan party. “Me and my mom and a couple of friends would save up and plan for CMA Fest all year. We had schedules — we had fanny packs! We were very serious,” the singer tells PEOPLE. “My first time was when I was 13, and I have pictures of me buddying up next to Lady A, sweating because I was so nervous to meet them.”
Now, the 23-year-old “Yeah Boy” singer has three chart-topping hits of her own and will be co-hosting the whole shin-dig with Thomas Rhett, who returns for a second year to helm the CMA Fest television special. “It’s definitely a full-circle moment,” she says.
As tour mates on Thomas Rhett’s Home Team Tour, the co-hosts already have a solid friendship. “She is so chill and so relaxed and so easy,” says Thomas Rhett, who hosted the CMA special last year with Brett Eldredge. “Kelsea is not a diva at all.”
Plus “her fiance might be one of my favorite human beings that ever exists,” he says of Morgan Evans, who popped the question to Ballerini on Christmas Day. “When he’s not there, I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh’. And when my wife Lauren’s not there, Kelsea is like, ‘Oh no!’ On the road, every night is somewhat of a double-date.”
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The stars are not only two of country’s top names — Thomas Rhett, 27, was newly crowned the Male Vocalist of the Year at this month’s ACM Awards, and Ballerini earned a Grammy nomination for best new artist earlier this year— they have another quality that’s key to taking on a hosting job with live shots, ad libs and inevitable flubs (like Thomas Rhett’s slip-up last year when he encouraged fans to check out Jason Aldean‘s Six String Turkish Tour, rather than the Six String Circus Tour): Says Kelsea, “We can laugh at ourselves!”
CMA Fest 2017, a three-hour television special featuring highlights from the four-day Music City festival which takes place June 8-11, will air later this summer on ABC.