After opening the show with a tribute to the victims of the Nashville, Tennessee, Covenant School shooting, the 29-year-old singer took the stage to perform “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” with drag queens Kennedy Davenport, Manila Luzon, Jan Sport and Oliva Lux. The performance came weeks after Tennessee Senate Bill 3 (a.k.a Tennessee drag ban), which would ban the public “adult cabaret performance” in front of children, was introduced.
“I love performance and I love self-expression and I love inclusivity,” Ballerini told Entertainment Tonight on Sunday.
Davenport, Luzon, Sport and Lux went on to praise Ballerini to the outlet.
“Just like all these amazing country music artists, we drag queens are also artists. And we deserve a space to be ourselves, express ourselves, and create something wonderful for everyone to enjoy,” Luzon said.
Sport noted it “means so much” to the community, explaining: “Because any opportunity for us to share our gifts with the world is a blessing. So, it’s more of us having a message to bless other people. It’s not bad. It’s all good. It’s all love. It’s all total liberation — that’s what the arts are all about.”
“Kelsea made it really clear in the rehearsal room and took even during right before the stage that she was like take up that space, you know, this is your time as well, and amplify the fact that you’re here,” Lux added. “Even the song, if you’re going down, I’m going down too — it is about the celebration of being a community. And I think that’s what we did on the stage tonight. And I really hope that transcended some people as well. It felt like it did.”
Davenport concluded: “The world is evolving. So we have to, we’re gonna evolve with you guys. And we’re going to. We’re all equal. And that’s what it’s all about.”
GLAAD subsequently released a statement praising Ballerini and the awards show.
“As LGBTQ rights are being questioned in Texas, Tennessee, and several Southern states, Kelsea Ballerini took to one of country music’s biggest stages to display bold allyship by proudly featuring talented and beloved drag artists. Kelsea’s performance at the CMT Music Awards reinforced that drag is not a threat, it’s an art. New legislation that tries to silence drag performers in some Southern states is as unpopular as it is unnecessary,” Anthony Allen Ramos, GLAAD’s Vice President of Communications & Talent, said on Monday, April 3. “The CMT Music Awards also featured a performance from out singer Lily Rose, out red carpet host Cody Alan, and legendary ally Shania Twain called for country music to be ‘all inclusive” in her remarks. Country music stars are using their platforms to stand with the LGBTQ community and the industry is growing into an explicitly welcoming place for LGBTQ fans and talent. Other country music stars, concerts, and events should take note of CMT’s inclusion and follow suit.”
Ballerini hasn’t been a stranger to headlines in recent months. Last month, she made waves for swapping lyrics to throw shade at her ex-husband, Morgan Evans, during her March 4 Saturday Night Live debut — changing her “Blindsided” outro to answer Evans’ “Over For You” single.
“Now you’re singing out loud on the radio that you’re the only heart that breaks,” she belted on the NBC variety show, referring to his September 2022 breakup anthem. “You would’ve searched the whole world over. Yeah, sure. OK.”
“Blindsided” was one of the post-divorce tracks Ballerini penned on her Rolling Up the Welcome Mat EP, which dropped in February.
“I think I was just kind of putting examples in there,” the “Peter Pan” artist said during a February 22 appearance on the “Call Her Daddy” podcast of her six-track project and its accompanying short film. “I’ve taken the time to, like, actually sit in my feelings and, like, go through that grieving process and take ownership of what I brought to the table. … I wish I would’ve had [these songs] in August.”
During the podcast appearance, Ballerini also opened up about finding out that Evans released his own breakup song. “As he’s putting out a song about being blindsided, he’s taking half the house that he didn’t pay for, “ she told host Alex Cooper. “How was I married to this person for this long and had no idea that that bit of character was tucked within that human being?”
Ballerini and the 35-year-old Australia native, who wed in 2017, announced in August 2022 that they were separating after nearly five years of marriage.
“Friends, I’ve always tried my best to share my life with you in a real and vulnerable way, while also protecting layers of my personal life as they unfold,” the Grammy Award winner wrote via her Instagram Story at the time. “This is now public record so I wanted you to hear from me directly that I am going through a divorce. … This deeply difficult decision is the result of a journey of love, growth, and effort that ultimately has come to an end.”
She concluded: “I feel extremely grateful for the years of marriage to Morgan and hopeful for the next seasons. With very active schedules coming up, please be mindful that we are both fragile, actively healing, and showing up the best we can.”
The pair ultimately finalized their divorce the following November, which Ballerini also referenced on Rolling Up the Welcome Mat. Evans, for his part, later spoke out about his ex-wife’s breakup songs and tell-all interviews about their relationship.
“It’s really sad for me to see this person, who I spent so much of my life with, and loved with all my heart, saying things that aren’t reality and that leave out what really happened,” Evans wrote via Instagram in February after a trailer for Ballerini’s “Call Her Daddy” podcast episode dropped, in which she disclosed several of their marital issues. “She knows I’m not the type of guy to speak on those things publicly. If this is what she needs to heal, I hope it helps.”
The “Heartfirst” singer has since moved on with Outer Banks star Chase Stokes after sliding into his social media DMs. Stokes, 30, was even spotted supporting his love’s concert tour last month — and walked the red carpet with her on Sunday.