The Year in Country 2016 — The Girls Have It! Kelsea Ballerini & Maren Morris Get Ready to Take the Grammys to “Church”

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Through the years, a handful of performers from the country genre have taken home the Grammy for Best New Artist: LeAnn RimesCarrie Underwood and Zac Brown Band. But up until this year, there’s never been a time when two country contenders have been in the running for the prestigious trophy. Thanks to Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris, that’s forever changed.  For both, 2016 held days that were light years ahead of where they’d been just twelve months earlier.

At CMA Music Festival, Kelsea made it a point to walk to the seat in the stadium where she sat just a few years ago as a fan. This past June, she played the main stage.  Maren, this year’s Best New Artist winner at the CMAs, recalled watching the show last year from a bar across the street from the Bridgestone Arena.  Here’s a more detailed look at the great year these two women have had:

— In February, Kelsea notched her second number one with “Dibs,” and went on to play her next single, “Peter Pan,” on the ACM Awards in April with heartthrob Nick Jonas. Earlier in March, the Academy of Country Music revealed that Kelsea had been named the New Female Vocalist of the Year.

— Growing up, Kelsea had gone to see Rascal Flatts in concert pretty often. But in 2016, the then-22-year-old spent her summer on the Rhythm and Roots Tour with the trio. Along the way, she also garnered some big-time TV exposure, hosting ABC’s Greatest Hits with talk show icon Arsenio Hall.

— By the time “Peter Pan” ascended to the top of the chart in September, the Knoxville, Tennessee native had set a record, becoming the first female artist to have three consecutive #1 singles from her debut album. She celebrated Peter Pan’s need to “fly away” with an airplane-themed party at a Nashville airport hangar.

–Kelsea finished the year by releasing what’s expected to the final single from her first record, “Yeah Boy,” as she kicked off her first headlining trek, appropriately titled The First Time Tour, in a nod to the title of her debut album. Meanwhile, the new Grammy nominee set her sights on finishing what she’s promised will be a more mature, introspective sophomore set.

— Maren Morris started to gain serious traction as her self-penned first single, “My Church,” ascended into the top-10 in May.

— Maren’s full-length debut Hero followed in June, debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. It proved to be the perfect chance to make a surprise appearance on the main stage at CMA Music Festival, playing her anthem at Nissan Stadium alongside Kelsea’s tourmates Rascal Flatts. Maren remarked she’d never played for so many people before…but that was all about to change.

— By the time Maren’s second release, “80s Mercedes,” hit the airwaves, she’d set out on the Ripcord World Tour with Keith Urban and Brett Eldredge. When Keith announced the CMA nods along with Dierks Bentley and Cam in late August, he called his tourmate’s name five times — making her one of the most-nominated artists of the year.

— At November’s 50th Annual CMA Awards, a stunned Maren was clutching the New Artist of the Year trophy just moments after performing her country anthem, “My Church.”

— In December, Maren’s triumphs continued, as she became the most-nominated country artist at next year’s Grammys. Dates on her 2017 Hero Tour quickly sold out, as Billboard honored her with its Breakthrough honor at its annual Women in Music gala. Just one year earlier, it was her pal Kelsea who’d accepted the same award.

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