In an exclusive PEOPLE interview, the rising country star talks CMA noms, her Jonas Brothers obsession and staying true to her Southern roots

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated September 10, 2015 12:00 PM
Credit: Taylor Hill/Filmmagic

During the live broadcast of the CMA nominations on Good Morning America Wednesday, Steven Tyler read the name of his co-announcer, Kelsea Ballerini, in not one, but two categories – New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year. And Ballerini couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “That’s not real!” gasped the Tennessee native when she heard her name. “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!”

After letting the news sink in a bit, PEOPLE sat down with the “Love Me Like You Mean It” singer, 21, to get the inside scoop on everything from her friendship with Taylor Swift to her ultimate country crush.

Did you know you were going to be nominated or was this a complete surprise?
“When we rehearsed they gave us placeholder cards that had [artists] like Lady Gaga on them, so we had no idea who was nominated. I’m so new, I didn’t expect to be in those categories – it was so cool. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t be stupid on TV right now and don’t cry!’ It’s a really special step. I’m stoked!”

Who was the first person you called/texted?
“My mom! I had a 10 minute break before I had to announce more stuff, so I grabbed my phone and texted my mom back because she texted me and was like, ‘Oh my gosh!'”

How does it feel being nominated along with superstar women like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood?
“It’s awesome, Miranda and Carrie are holding down the fort in country music right now, they are the pillars, and being with them in this category and representing women is really important. I think there’s such an awesome wave of women coming up with Cam and Mickey [Guyton] – these girls are killing it. I’m stoked to be a part of that wave and to be a part of this.”

What was it like announcing the nominations with Steven Tyler?
“We cracked so many jokes backstage. We were supposed to say ‘Good Morning America!’ and we totally wrecked it like three times. But he had watched all my videos and was so kind. That’s what you hope people you aspire to be like, and aspire to have a career like, are like.”

What artists did you love growing up?
“I was totally in that era of like Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers, so I had their posters on my wall. I’ve met all the Jonas Brothers, but I haven’t told them I had their posters. Some things I should probably just keep in my brain! Like if somebody came up to me and was like, ‘Your posters were on my wall,’ I’d be like, ‘Ugh!'”

How did you and Taylor Swift become friends?
“She’s always been one of my favorite artists and someone I’ve looked up to as a songwriter and as a killer woman. She tweeted about my EP when it came out months ago and then reached out. I’ve randomly got to know and become friends with her. And it’s so cool to be a fan of somebody and then become friends and then love them even more. That’s the case with her, I adore her.”

You recently posted a social media photo where you are literally laying in a pig pen. What’s the deal?
“My roots are definitely so Southern, I grew up on a farm! I’m such an animal lover, but being on the road you don’t have time to see many animals. We were playing a fair the other day, and there were these really cute pigs and I laid down with them and took a picture.”

Who is your country music crush?
“Sam Hunt, of course. He’s tall, dark and handsome – and he’s got swag.”

What can we expect from your music in the near future?
“I have experienced so much change in this last year both personally and career wise. I have at least four or five songs ready to go for the next record, but I really want to take some more time this year to hone in on what I want to say and figure myself out.”

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