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Up-and-coming country star Kelsea Ballerini ready to take Tortuga Music Festival by storm this week

Most of the fans at the Tortuga Music Festival, which hits the sands of Fort Lauderdale for a fourth year this weekend, are drawn by its honky-tonk headliners Dierks Bentley, Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton.

And rightly so. But country music’s biggest beach party offers so much more than big stars in big hats. First of all, the three-day fest works hand-in-hand with the Rock the Ocean Foundation to raise awareness of endangered sea turtles and issues affecting the world’s oceans (see sidebar).

And many of its dozens of secondary acts – including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, Kip Moore, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Cam, Elle King, Billy Currington, Michael Franti & Spearhead and A Thousand Horses – would make a pretty strong draw on their own.

One of those secondary acts is up-and-coming female singer Kelsea Ballerini, a 22-year-old fireplug with a built-in rock-star name who has taken Nashville by storm with her debut album, “The First Time,” and its hits “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and the new “Peter Pan.”

The disarmingly humble Ballerini – whom Billboard crowned Country’s Next Queen, and who won this year’s ACM Award for New Female Vocalist of the Year – hits the stage at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in what promises to be an “I saw her when” moment.

She talked to about her show, moving to Nashville at age 15, her female idols who helped shape her sound, and her whirlwind rise to the brink of fame.

This is your first time at the festival. Are you excited?

Oh, I’m so excited! A bunch of my friends played it last year and I just saw pictures, and I was like, ‘That looks like the biggest party I’ve ever seen in my life!’ I can’t wait. And you know, any excuse to go to the beach and hang out with your friends is amazing, but to hang out with friends and play country music and celebrate that with people who love country music is really cool. I’m stoked.

And judging from the lineup, it’s a real honor to be invited.

Yeah, oh my Gosh! I feel like it’s some of the biggest players in country music, and I don’t even know the whole lineup, but it’s just awesome. I can’t wait. And the coolest thing about lineups like this is, I get to play and then I get to go be a fan. It’s my favorite part of playing before people. I still love just getting to sit side-stage and rock out.

Besides the music, this festival raises awareness of ocean conservation and protection of sea turtles. As a Tennessee girl, is that important to you?

Well, I’m an animal lover in general, and I’m still so new, so it’s been interesting to kind of figure out what I want my causes to be and what I want to stand up for. But anything pro-animal, I’m all about. So it’s really cool that that’s what this benefits.

What can we expect from your set? Anything new?

Yeah! I’m still kind of trying to introduce myself when I play shows, so I play some songs that people have probably heard on the radio, and songs off my record. And I play some covers and I talk, and I’m starting to play some stuff that’s not recorded yet. So it’s a good blend of a lot of things for people that have seen me before, and for people that haven’t. My goal is just to walk off-stage and have people feel like we’re friends.

You’re touring with Rascal Flatts later this year – when does that start?

I’m touring with Billy Currington right now, which has been amazing, and we’re about halfway through the tour. And as soon as I’m done with Billy, I have the Rascal Flatts tour. I mean, I remember growing up and seeing them every time they would come to Knoxville, so it’s crazy to be on a tour with people who are, like, legendary.

Your sound is a nice mix of classic country and current pop. Who are some of your biggest idols that had a hand in helping to shape your sound?

I’ve always been drawn to the females that have pushed the envelope a bit, so Shania [Twain], Faith [Hill], Taylor [Swift] – those are probably three of my favorites. And I feel like they were exactly that – they had their roots in the heartbeat of traditional country music, but they always weren’t afraid to just kind of be who they were and add other players of other genres in, and just be as authentic as they want to be. And I think that’s why they were who they were, and were as big as they were, because they were completely themselves. And that’s what I’ve always admired about them, and that’s something I’d like to follow.

Well, Billboard called you Country’s Next Queen, and you just won the ACM Award for New Female Vocalist of the Year, so it looks like you’re on the right track.

That’s nice, right? Like I said, I still feel so new, and so to be able to even go to an awards show and put on a pretty dress and sit in the same row as Carrie Underwood blows my mind. That said, to be able to be nominated, and to really be a part of a show like that, that honors country music and where it’s at right now, it’s a big deal, and I don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure. It’s super-encouraging, as I start my next record and release my third single, to keep going and keep pushing.

The last couple of years must feel like a whirlwind for you.

Oh, it completely does. It’s good – I like that I’m so busy that I can’t freak out, you know what I mean? [laughs]. Every now and again, something will happen, and those are the moments when I put my head up and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot believe life right now, and that it’s only been a year and a half.’ Those are moments of pure gratitude, and then I put my head back down and keep going.

What are the best and worst things about gaining fame?

There’s not one aspect of this journey that I haven’t loved. But it’s so weird, because I don’t feel like I’ve even touched that yet. I still feel so new, and people have just started coming up and saying ‘Hey’ while I’m eating dinner. That’s a super-new thing, so I don’t think I’ve felt that yet.

You moved to Nashville when you were 15 – how was that experience?

It was so good, but I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to get started, and I didn’t know anyone, but I always say that I’m so thankful that I was super-naïve through this whole process. I signed my record deal, and four months later I had a single and was starting my radio tour. So everything was so quick, and it was really kind of a learn-as-you-go kind of thing, which was so nice because I didn’t have any kind of preconceived ideas of how to do it, or who to stay away from, or any of that. I just figured it out. And I’m still continuing to figure it out.

Speaking of Nashville, have you seen the TV show?

Yeah, I’m actually in an episode coming up. I think it’s next month. It’s a great show.

Were you a fan of it before they asked you to come on?

Oh yeah – I watched it from the very first season.

Do you find it to be accurate?

You know, I haven’t experienced [the city] to be as dramatic as the show is, because obviously they need drama for TV, but the music part of it is super-real. I love how they show the writing process and the studio and all that. But in my personal experience, Nashville isn’t that dramatic. I think we’d all be crazy if it was.

What do you like to listen to other than country?

I listen to everything. I really do love music. My iPod right now is a fair balance of Troye Sivan, Alessia Cara, Drake, Fetty Wap, Frank Sinatra – it’s just ridiculous.

How often do you

get to Miami?

Not often enough! But any chance that I get to go, I will go – always. Anywhere that’s near a beach makes me feel like I’m on vacation whether I am or not – anywhere near the ocean is such a refreshing thing for me, and gets me energized.