This year, the 59th Annual ASCAP Country Music Awards will be held digitally. Artists will enjoy their celebrations from Monday (November 8) through Wednesday across all ASCAP social media platforms. And one of those award winners is the keen-eyed Kentucky-born songwriter Carly Pearce, whose hit single, “Next Girl,” earned the artist an award this year for country music’s most-performed song. Pearce, who co-wrote the tune with Josh Osborne, who himself is receiving the award for ASCAP Country Music Songwriter of the Year, says the recognition (which is now her third ASCAP award) is validation for her choice to follow music, follow writing, move to Tennessee and pour all she has into the craft.
“I didn’t move to Nashville to be a songwriter,” Pearce says, “I moved to Nashville to write songs for myself and be an artist. And I’m grateful to be able to do that. I’m grateful that people care about what I have to say.”
For Pearce, the song, “Next Girl,” was the first major track she wrote without her longtime producer Michael James Busbee, who passed away in 2019. Pearce, who often writes autobiographically, says to enter into a new phase of creativity without busbee was not easy. Further, heading into writing her latest LP, 29: Written In Stone (2021), Pearce divorced her husband, singer Michael Ray. The two had married in 2019.
“[‘Next Girl’] was written over Zoom in 2020,” Pearce says. “It was the first song that spearheaded the album. I really just wanted to write from the place of all these women in the ‘90s that I loved so much. I channeled Patty Loveless in the song. I wanted to write a fun song with true lyrics and true meaning. Wanting to warn the next girl not to fall for these guys.”
Pearce’s song is about how young women might enter new spaces with men wide-eyed, believing all the sweet talk. (One can only presume that Pearce herself felt this way at one time in her life.) But she warns, straighten up, don’t fall for that. Stand on your own two feet and earn your own. For Pearce, getting all that off her chest helped her move forward on her new path, which includes a new headlining tour that began Thursday (Nov. 4) and a recent stint in Houston to sing the National Anthem for the World Series. In addition to that, Pearce was recently given membership to the famed Grand Ole Opry, offered by none other than Dolly Parton.
“I just remember her saying ‘Opry’ and I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’” Pearce says.
She also fell to her knees, and Parton, knowing what to say, noted she couldn’t accept the honor sitting down, so Pearce got up, as if baptized in the news. For her, the recognition couldn’t have come from a better source. Pearce, who grew up singing before she could even talk, music was everything. She was one of those people who knew her life’s direction—or at least believed in it so hard that it felt like knowledge—before anyone else her age. She was to be a performer or bust. As a young musician, she was selected for a job playing at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. To accept meant her family had to move from Kentucky. Though her parents weren’t professional musicians, they knew their daughter had something. So, they picked up and relocated, opening up Pearce to her first big professional break.
“Music was the only thing that made me feel understood as a kid,” Pearce says. “There was no other option. Some kids wanted to be doctors, dancers, actors—I dreamt of being a country artist.”
For Pearce, this sense of certainty at the time felt like both a blessing and a curse. She knew what she wanted to do, which meant she saw the target and knew what to aim for. Yet, she also knew that if she failed at achieving her goal, there would be no coming back from it, she’d be devastated. Picture that one Christmas when you didn’t get that thing you really wanted, then multiply it by about a billion.
“I was in Nashville for eight years before it ever happened,” Pearce says. “I wondered why this was in my blood because I felt put on this earth for this.”
Originally, Pearce learned about country music from her grandparents. It swam in the air of the house where she grew up all the time. Pearce says she originally gravitated to the essential aspects of the music; how fundamental it could feel. It was both relatable and honest. In 2017, while working cleaning houses for Airbnb, Pearce completed and released her debut LP, Every Little Thing. The titular single put her on the map, picked up by a SiriusXM station, and poof, she had a career now. (Pearce uses the word “catapulted.”) In 2020, she released her self-titled LP, which paved the way for her latest, which she put together after losing busbee, navigating a public divorce, and, like everyone, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I could have easily turned away,” Pearce says of her real-life events, “and put out music that had nothing to do with it. But that’s not real life. I decided to dive in.”
Today, Pearce, who has a big social media platform and songs that have achieved millions of streams, says when she was at her worst, going through some of life’s hardest tribulations, she’s still just like everyone else, a vulnerable human being. She goes through the exact same things as many others do. It’s just that the way she deals with it is with melody and lyric. And by working through her pain in song, Pearce came out the other end a mightier success with still much more to prove, she says.
“I feel like I’m just getting started,” Pearce says. “29 is the album I’ll always look back on in my career and say that was the turning point for me in the way I want to be looked at in country music.” She adds, “I hope when people look at my music and my little legacy, I hope they say, ‘She was a country music purist.”
Photo Credit: Allister Ann