Luckily, Kelsea Ballerini says, Carrie Underwood doesn’t remember the first time the two met at the Grand Ole Opry. A Nashville college student at the time, Ballerini somehow finagled a backstage Opry pass, and she ran into Underwood in a hallway.
“I thought I was just going to say hi and take a picture of her like a normal person and instead, I just blurted out, ‘Girl, you’ve got soul!’” Ballerini recalls with no small amount of embarrassment.
For their latest encounter, Ballerini can be assured her longtime idol will likely never forget: On Tuesday night, Underwood inducted her into the Opry, giving Ballerini a membership into country music’s most revered fellowship.
No doubt Underwood’s presence just made what was already a dream-come-true moment that much dreamier for Ballerini, who first visited the Opry as a young teen and knew, “even as a fan, I wanted to be a part of the Opry.” Once she launched her singing career in 2014, an Opry debut was at the top of her “very intensive goal list.” After achieving that, on Feb. 14, 2015, she says, she put Opry membership on her before-I-die list. “I didn’t think it would be four years later,” she said. “I thought it’d be 42. So it’s pretty crazy.”
The Opry has obviously been making a concerted effort to boost its ranks with some of country’s brightest young stars. Other recent inductees include Dustin Lynch, Chris Janson and Chris Young — but Ballerini, at 25, is now the Opry’s youngest member. It’s exactly the same age as Underwood when she was inducted in 2008 soon after she won American Idol.
Ballerini received her surprise invitation onstage on March 5 during a performance with Little Big Town, and ever since, she has been trying to wrap her head around the honor. She was still at it on Tuesday morning as she prepared for her big night by watching videos of other members’ Opry moments.
“I YouTubed Carrie and Dustin and Janson and Darius Rucker, and I watched their invitations and their inductions all morning, and I was just a puddle,” she told PEOPLE.
Maybe that’s because all of them were crying, too. How could any country artist in that position not cry? Ballerini certainly found out she couldn’t. She cried, of course, at her own Opry invitation back in March. She even broke down in tears during the Tuesday press conference — “What is wrong with me?” she choked out. “This is crazy!” — as she recalled the first time she played the Opry.
“They’re happy tears,” she assured the reporters as she broke down again talking about the friends and family who would be in the audience — all the people “that I love and that would love me whether this happened or not.” (Her artist husband, Morgan Evans, was performing in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Tuesday and so was unable to attend, but the flowers he sent arrived just before she left for the Opry.)
Of course once Ballerini was on stage, tears streamed down her face as Underwood presented her with the precious Opry trophy — a tiny microphone on a stand — that signifies membership.
“You have accomplished so much in your career,” Underwood, 36, told the new inductee, “and you no doubt will accomplish infinite amounts more in your career and in your life: awards and number ones and sales and tours and fans, and just all of it.”
“This,” Underwood said, gesturing to the trophy, “is better than all of that. The Opry has been and will always be here, the heart and soul of country music and family. You are in it. Congratulations! Welcome to the family!”
Cheers filled the Opry House as Ballerini clutched the trophy and collected herself, finally putting into words one reason that Opry membership is so special: It is for life.
“It’s so nice and comforting to know,” Ballerini told the sold-out crowd, “that no matter where life takes me and no matter if the radio stops playing me tomorrow — whatever happens that I can always come here and I can always play country music.”
That lifetime promise of a major stage is priceless in a profession that’s known for flashes in the pan as much as flashy careers. But clearly Ballerini is in no danger of flaming out. The platinum-selling artist actually wedged the induction into a week that also includes the first three shows, all sellouts, of her first arena tour.
Right before her induction, she showed the crowd why she had earned her Opry membership with a captivating three-song set that included No. 1 hit
and current hit single
She and Underwood then capped the induction with a duet of Trisha Yearwood’s classic
That nod to another member testified to the fact that, as Underwood noted, the Opry is an intimate musical family — something that hit home to Ballerini when the two women were rehearsing their song backstage before the induction.
“We were on the second chorus and from behind us, we heard a third voice harmonizing the low harmony,” Ballerini told PEOPLE.
The two women turned around to discover their surprise collaborator was Keith Urban, another Opry member. He’d popped in to the Opry House for a short stage performance just before Ballerini’s set. For a few thrilling moments — and just for their own ears — three of country’s finest mingled their voices on the song’s third chorus.
“That was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened in my life,” Ballerini said, still marveling at the moment. “Those are the kinds of things that happen at the Grand Ole Opry.”