Kelsea Ballerini’s Hometown Favorites
Back in Knoxville for her homecoming concert, Kelsea shares her can’t-miss spots.
To kick off the release of Kelsea Ballerini’s sophomore album, “Unapologetically” (now available), we brought her back home to Central High School for a celebration concert. Kelsea, one of country’s most buzzed-about artists, grew up right outside Knoxville in Mascot, Tennessee, and she credits Central High with helping build the person she is today.
“Those were just the most crucial years of my life. I mean, that is truly when I decided that music was what I was going to do. It's when I decided what kind of person I wanted to be. There's just something special about that place for me.”
She started the concert with some of the hits from her debut album, “The First Time,” and then wove in some new songs off her yet-to-be-released album, “Unapologetically.” It was a special treat for fans who traveled from all over the country to see her perform.
Leading up to the concert, Kelsea highlighted some of her must-visit places in Knoxville. She even stopped by Rita’s Bakery the day of the concert to snag some thumbprints cookies (her favorite!). And her fans who traveled to Knoxville, many for the first time, had to stop in as well — if for no other reason than to have a bit more in common with “Country’s Next Queen,” as Billboard nicknamed her.
For Kelsea, food is tied to memories — the smells and tastes take her back to specific times in her life. At Rita’s, it’s the thumbprint cookies. Growing up, Kelsea had them at every Girl Scout and youth group meeting. “They just bring me back to being young, and being in both of those places. It was our special treat.” But Rita doesn’t make just great thumbprints — her bakery specializes in old-fashioned cakes, pies, petit fours, cookies, brownies and more. What started out as Grandma Rita (as everyone calls her) baking in her kitchen turned into one of Kelsea’s favorite Knoxville stops.
The ever-changing Market Square is one place Kelsea loves to check in whenever she’s home. Market Square was established in the 1800s as a market place for farmers, and over the years, it has developed into a hot spot for University of Tennessee students and tourists alike. Market Square is home to dozens of restaurants and live events, such as concerts and rallies, and is a popular place for street musicians. It’s where Knoxville pride lives. And somewhere Kelsea loves to go. “Every time I go back home, I go down there for a meal. It just makes me feel like I’m home.”
Built in 1928, the historic Tennessee Theatre is the official theater of the state and one of Kelsea’s favorite places in the world. Her dad lived in a condo above it for a bit and she’d often sneak down to the theater and dream of being on that stage someday — and she had goals for when that happened. “I knew that I couldn't go back and play a hometown show until I could sell out that venue, and that's what we did.”
Civic Auditorium and Coliseum
The Civic Coliseum, one of Knoxville’s largest event centers, was where Kelsea saw concerts growing up. When she was 13 or 14, Kelsea went to Kelly Clarkson’s Behind These Hazel Eyes tour, and she credits that performance with discovering what type of artist she’d be someday. “I just remembered thinking, ‘If I ever get to do this, that's the kind of artist I want to be.’ ” Fast-forward a decade, and Kelsea got to perform at Civic Coliseum while on tour with Thomas Rhett in March 2017. “There's nothing like playing a venue that you've been a fan at. It's a weird, magical, unexplainable thing.”
After sitting down with Kelsea, it’s clear she’s a Tennessee girl through and through. And she wouldn’t be the person or artist she is if it weren’t for the city she calls home. If you missed her in her Knoxville, you can catch her in Chattanooga and Nashville on her 2018 Unapologetically tour. Be on the lookout for tickets to go on sale. And keep following Tennessee on Snapchat to see what other artists are up to around the state they call home.