Kelsea Ballerini Says She Feels a 'Duty to Challenge Everything' as a Woman in Country Music

Kelsea Ballerini is co-hosting the 2022 CMT Music Awards on Monday

CMT Music Awards co-host Kelsea Ballerini may have found success on the back of country hits like "Dibs" and "Yeah Boy," but it's outside of her comfort zone where she thrives the most.

Ballerini, 28, has branched out in recent years, collaborating with country staples like Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean, but also pop stars like LANY, Halsey and the Chainsmokers.

Now, the star tells PEOPLE that she's more than happy experimenting with the expectations of whatever it is that "country music" means — and feels it's her job to do so.

"I just wonder why the boundaries are there in the first place. Like, who put them there? Why are they still there?" she says. "Those are just questions I'm always asking myself. And as I really get my footing as a woman in country music that has some success under my belt, I think it's my duty to challenge everything."

That drive is entirely evident in Ballerini's new single "Heartfirst," a '90s-inspired confection she says is the lovechild of The Corrs and Sheryl Crow, "with a little Shania [Twain] sprinkled on top."

"I think as long as the music is the best I can make, why not [challenge expectations]?" she says. "Why not have one song with a banjo, one song with a beat drop? Who cares? Music is music, and I do think there's space for all of it, and I think there's people that will celebrate all of it."

Celebrations of country music of all kinds will be put on display Monday night at the 2022 CMT Music Awards, which Ballerini is co-hosting for a second year in a row, this time with actor Anthony Mackie.

The star is nominated for video of the year, collaborative video of the year and CMT performance of the year, and will also sing "Heartfirst" live for the first time.

Despite the big platform, Ballerini says she's hardly nervous, thanks in part to some words of wisdom she received from none other than Arsenio Hall, with whom she hosted the ABC music series Greatest Hits in 2016.

Kelsea Ballerini CMT
CMT Music Awards

"I had my first prompter read and I was just terrified, because I had no idea what I was doing," she recalls. "And Arsenio just looked at me and he was like, 'Honey, all you need to know is the name of who you're bringing on. Other than that, just be you. Feel the room. Riff. It doesn't matter. You're here because of the personality.' And that's just helped me really ease into it."

She's also confident in her chemistry with Mackie, whom she says nearly made her cry with laughter when they presented together at the Grammy Awards.

"I'm excited to have a bit of a fashion show just for the heck of it," she adds of her CMT Awards plans. "[Expect] lots of color."

Kelsea Ballerini
Kelsea Ballerini. Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Though Ballerini has yet to share additional details on her forthcoming fifth studio album, she does admit that "Heartfirst" is setting the tone for what's to come.

"There is a lot of nostalgia to this record," she says. "It does sound really '90s-inspired, '90s country and '90s pop… I really just wanted to start this next chapter with something that feels good. It's breezy, it's happy, and I hope people hear that."

She adds: "It's just a song about following your gut and how anything good in life comes from a leap of faith, especially love. Love is the biggest leap of faith that you could ever take. It's terrifying, and that's the point. The song is all about trusting yourself [and] your heart."

The 2022 CMT Music Awards are airing live from Nashville on Monday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

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