Ten years ago, before the hit singles and the Grammy and the other industry awards, Carly Pearce was nearly ready to give up. The Kenton County native had moved to Nashville in 2009 when she was 19, and three years later, a development deal with Sony raised her hopes. But like so many others whose dreams of country stardom take them to Music City, Pearce watched everything fall apart. Instead of being feted as the next big thing, Pearce lost her contract in a corporate reshuffle. She found herself scouring sinks and scrubbing toilets in the short-term rentals that cater to the city’s tourist industry.
Then something changed. She had written a ballad she believed in, but one that “felt way too artistic for the radio, or to be a song that anybody would care about,” she says. In a meeting with a potential manager, she was told, “You will never stand out or be special with a song like this.” Crushed and demoralized, she thought she might be done with Nashville—or at least that Nashville was done with her. Three weeks later, Pearce’s recording of the song was picked up by Sirius XM’s influential channel, The Highway, and Every Little Thing rocketed to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, cracked its Hot 100 at No. 50 and went gold.
An early education
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Pearce has never looked back, because she often does just that. “I’m very nostalgic,” she says. “I had such a wonderful childhood with people that really believed in what I was doing and really instilled that drive in me that I could chase any dream that I ever wanted.”
Growing up in the 1990s in the small Kenton County community of Taylor Mill, Pearce had always dreamed of making her own kind of country music history. Her maternal grandparents gave her an education in country music by introducing her to the songs of Loretta Lynn and Bill Monroe and providing her with her first musical instruments. But she also enrolled in another kind of master class: country radio. The 1990s saw the genre producing well-crafted songs about everyday life that were often written and performed by strong women. Pearce grew up revering fellow Kentuckians like The Judds and Patty Loveless, as well as Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill.
Pearce started performing as a child and entering talent shows in northern Kentucky. “I was just known as the singer,” she laughs, describing how she founded her first bluegrass band at 11 and visited her first recording studio. She began playing guitar and writing songs at 14, and it was obvious what she wanted.
When she was offered a steady performing gig at Dollywood in 2006, she convinced her parents to move to Pigeon Forge and allow her to drop out of high school at 16, completing her education via homeschooling. Three years later, Pearce was in Nashville, singing at open mics and working part-time jobs to get by.
Climbing the Charts
After the success of Every Little Thing in 2017, she released an album of the same name that spawned the hits If My Name Was Whiskey and Hide the Wine. Her eponymous second album, Carly Pearce, followed two years later, debuting at No. 6 on the country charts and featuring two hit singles. But it was Pearce’s third album that really took her to another level artistically.
In September 2021, Pearce released 29: Written in Stone, an album that marked a career watershed and underscored the balance between past and present in Pearce’s music. While she is certainly innovative and contemporary, she also seems to hark back to a different time in country music—an era much less glossy and manufactured, one in which the singers often lived out their songs.
29: Written in Stone traces the contours of a broken heart with stark, vulnerable lyrics about love, blame, failure, anger and longing. Written and recorded against the backdrop of a divorce and the death of her longtime producer, Michael James Ryan, known professionally as Busbee, the album found an immediate audience with country music fans.
“I remember writing (the song 29) and being a 29-year-old going, ‘Oh my God. How is this my story? How am I a young woman divorced?’” Pearce says, noting her initial surprise at how the song’s message resonated with many people. “I feel like I’ve become a face for my generation to (say) if something isn’t serving you well, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. You can get out of it. And you don’t have to stay because society tells you to, or because it’s not biblical, or it’s not the way you thought it would go. And I think that’s pushed me as a songwriter.”
The album’s emotional centerpiece is What He Didn’t Do, a sober ballad Pearce co-wrote that subverts the typical kiss-off breakup song by instead listing what one partner needed but didn’t receive from the other. Released as a single, the track peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. Another single, Never Wanted to Be That Girl, is a bracing duet with fellow country luminary Ashley McBryde. The song reached No. 1 on the charts and won Pearce and McBryde a Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance, marking the first time a female duo had won the award since The Judds’ string of consecutive victories in the 1980s and early 1990s.
29: Written in Stone was particularly satisfying for Pearce because it allowed her to pay tribute to two of her girlhood heroes: Lynn and Loveless. A duet with Loveless, Dear Miss Loretta is a letter in song in which the singers find common ground in the heartache Lynn’s music expresses.
Followups and the future
Pearce’s fellow Kentucky artists hold a special place in her heart. Recently, she kept hearing Chris Stapleton’s voice in her head when she was writing a song. We Don’t Fight Anymore—which was released as a single in June—tells the story of two lovers in crisis, and when Stapleton agreed to record it as a duet, Pearce told him to “do whatever you feel.” As the track unfolds, listeners feels as if they are eavesdropping on a conversation to which they shouldn’t be privy.
Along with 29: Written in Stone, We Don’t Fight Anymore stakes out new territory for Pearce as a songwriter.
“I don’t want to be known for fluff,” she says. “ … I really want to say things that make people feel things, and I’m willing to say the thing that almost makes you gasp.”
Pearce is currently working on new material, and when she speaks about her music, it’s clear she does not take her success for granted. Songwriting, for her, is a vocation that must be earned again and again. As she talks, Pearce laughs at the number of “bad songs” she has written that have never seen the light of day. One measure of success, she says, is whether the song reflects real life.
“We’re supposed to tell the everyday stories of the people that listen to our music, and I have to believe that I’ve seen it,” she says. “I’m no different than anybody else, except I have a microphone and I wear fancy clothes on a stage.”
Pearce says that anyone who knows her will tell you that, just like her music, she’s forthright, a character trait she credits to her family and her Kentucky roots.
“I say what I think, and I stand by it, and you never have to (wonder) what I’m thinking because I’ll tell you, whether you like it or not. And that’s the kind of music I want to make too.”
Carly Pearce on writing Every Little Thing
“I wrote that song in 30 minutes, so it’s probably, to this day, one of the shortest writes I’ve ever had on a song. I remember being like, ‘Wow, this song is so good.’ But I did not ever think that it would be the one. Because you always hear, ‘All you need is one song to change the game.’ I would have never thought that that was the one.
“I think for me, just as an artist, it was my favorite, and I didn’t feel like I was chasing anybody else, or chasing what everybody else thought of being. I was just like, ‘Oh God, this is me.’
“(In) that season of my life I felt like I was at such a crossroads of ‘What am I going to do?’ but not realizing what was coming. I always tell people: Whatever dream you’re chasing, if you really believe it, you just have to run the course, because it’s not about your timing. It’s about God’s timing.”