Like many artists, Carly Pearce’s 2020 hasn’t gone according to plan. The only female country artist on Forbes’ 2020 30 Under 30, in addition to not being on the road touring due to Covid-19, Pearce is releasing new music for the first time without longtime producer busbee, who died last year from brain cancer, as well as navigating life following the end of her marriage to fellow country artist Michael Ray.
“I’ve had a really hard year and the thing that continues to give me love is country music,” Pearce, who recently garnered four CMA Awards nominations, tells me. “I’ve had a lot of loss with busbee and my marriage. I think as you start to hear this new chapter of music, you’re absolutely going to hear [those emotions]. It’s real life. The other part is love and heartbreak and loss, and all of those emotions are what we all deal with. I think country music does it best to speak truth and real.”
Pearce knows firsthand what speaking truth can do as seen on her confessional debut No. 1 single “Every Little Thing.” Released independently in 2016, the poignant ballad was first embraced by SiriusXM senior director of programming J.R. Schumann. When The Highway began playing the song, Schumann told Pearce “Every Little Thing” will change her life and she wasn’t convinced. As she recalls, she’d been told by “everybody in Nashville” not to put out a heartbreak ballad as a new female artist. It quickly became the No. 1 song on iTunes and eventually helped to garner Pearce a deal with Big Machine Records.
It was a long journey for the singer-songwriter before signing with Big Machine though. Pearce moved to Nashville 11 years ago to pursue music full-time. While her friends at home in Kentucky were attending college, she served as a backup singer, a nanny, worked in retail and cleaned Airbnbs.
“I was still living very much paycheck to paycheck and never allowed myself to give up, even though I felt like I should. Then I had this crazy story that I feel like doesn’t happen very often. I think the more I go along, I realize how few get this amazing opportunity of having a song that’s already working before you have a record deal,” she says. “In every way, it allows you to have a better deal. It allows you to get out the door at the label and become a priority quicker. It ended up being such a gift to not get a record deal too quickly.”
Pearce’s 2020 is turning around as the singer has been nominated at the upcoming Nov. 11 CMA Awards for New Artist of the Year as well as Song of the Year, Musical Event of the Year and Video of the Year for her No. 1 collaboration “I Hope You’re Happy Now” with Lee Brice. It was the last song she worked on with busbee and she says it has changed in meaning for her following her producer’s death.
“In the studio with busbee, when that track was being recorded and I was singing the scratch vocal, I remember having this moment of like, ‘Man, he made this track feel like the music that made me want to move to Nashville.’ When Luke [Combs] and I wrote this song, it was me really tapping into the ’90s sound that I moved to Nashville to make,” she says. “I’m so proud that I get to close the chapter of busbee on such a high note.”
Pearce recently released her fifth single and it marks a new chapter for the singer-songwriter. Without busbee at the helm, she met with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne to co-write the lead track off her upcoming third studio album. “Next Girl” is an anthemic song that has Pearce warning a girl about her ex before she starts dating him. Over Zoom, Pearce, McAnally and Osborne shared their mutual love of ’90s female country artists like Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, the Chicks and the Judds. Once Pearce offered the title of “Next Girl,” her co-writers jumped in.
“It is my heart bleeding out to you in a different way. It’s a different way of emoting it, but I’m leaning into all the emotions,” she says of the song. “I heard it more as like a letter, almost like ‘Dear Next Girl’ in the Carly Pearce fashion of heartbreak ballads. It was so interesting to get to hear two absolute hit songwriters be like, ‘Wait a minute. What if it’s more of one of those anthems that you talk about?’ … I want to be a purist in the format. I want to be the country female and I feel like this is what Patty Loveless would do in 2020 in the best way.”
Pearce credits Loveless’ “Blame It On Your Heart” as inspiration. She says she hopes “Next Girl” will empower females the same way Loveless has done for Pearce. While she’s already had fans share their stories of how the song has been therapeutic to them, Pearce says writing the song was therapy for her too.
“These people make you feel like it’s your fault. They make you feel like this is what love is. And it’s so not you. And it’s so not love, I can promise you,” she says of the men she sings about in the song. “I’m speaking from real experience. I try to write what I wish I could have done in the moment. I try to really go there.”
Some fans have pointed out how a few lyrics seem to resemblance that of ex-husband Ray’s song “Think A Little Less.” When asked, Pearce laughs. “You know, what’s funny is we’ve talked about it, Shane, Josh and I. It’s funny that they thought that … I’ll leave that for the listeners choice. I’ll just say that happened to be quite the coincidence because we weren’t going for that,” she says.
“I’ve had four singles at radio and the two that I wrote and the two that I bled my heart out went number one. I now just know what fans want from me,” she continues. “Our core demographic are females. The females ruled the ’90s when they sang these really amazing songs that empowered women and spoke straight to women. We need more of those.”