Carly Pearce didn’t see it coming. Feeling lost over the death of collaborator and personal champion busbee during the making of “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” her triple Country Music Associations Awards nominated duet with Lee Brice, the songwriter known for her staunchness in the face of rough emotions wasn’t sure how to follow up her second self-penned No. 1.
At a time when women struggle to get played, her stark “Every Little Thing” found the top of the charts. Now her standing in the wreckage vocal tangle with the gruff voiced Brice was connecting with people whose hearts have shattered. She knew her next move was critical. She understood her place as a voice for real women working actual jobs and trying to get through life in one piece.
Feeling untethered, Pearce did what she’s done since she left school at 15 and took a job at Dollywood to hone her singing, performing and writing: turned to her record collection. Somewhere in all the Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis, the honey blond had a revelation. The Song of the Year nominee knew she needed to get back to her roots.
“The truth is,” she says unraveling the reality on the phone from her home outside Nashville, “I was never actually lost. I didn’t realize it until I started singing along, until I got back to the music that made me want to be a country singer. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I needed to make real country music in the sense of all those women I loved.”
Thinking about which writers shared her passion for ‘80s and ‘90s country, who would get the tang and the twang of what was country’s return to traditionalism led one place. Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne were kindred spirits – and she knew they’d understand the power of a smart lyric over an up-tempo song.
When they started unpacking their influences, Reba, Barbara Mandrell, The Chicks tumbled out alongside the Parton, the Lynn, the Loveless and the Tillis. Lines from their hits flew back and forth, riffs were sung, laughter shared. For the woman whose divorce became final this week, the biggest question in their writing session seemed to be “What Would Patty Loveless Do?”
“That was the thing about Patty Loveless and so many of those women,” Pearce says with a laugh, “they were so strong, and so real. They stuck up for themselves, earned their own money, fell in love, got hurt, but they were always their own women. They dug down deep, but they still had fun. They held their own and they held the line, but it was never mean-spirited or hard.”
To wit, “Next Girl,” a banjo-soaked tumble that could be deemed a “Sister’s Keeper” kind of song. With her dusky voice, she sweeps through a warning to a young woman being swept off her feet. The chorus has a staccato pluck that nails the planks of basic bar seduction – walk you to your car, said he never falls this hard, knows how to say all the right things, how to get you out of your dress, make you think you’re the best thing, “but” comes the cautionary hook, “I know what happens next, girl” – that levels up the playing field for the girl in the cross hairs of a certain kind of ladies’ man.
“You know we’ve all been both of these girls,” Pearce says, throwing into girl talk mode. “You’re young, you think it’s magic. You’re grown and you know better.
“How many times have you gone to a club and watched this happen? It’s so predictable, just look around. But for all the looking, how many times have you ever said anything?”
There’s a slight pause. She speaks the truth about late nights, bridal parties and beyond.
“So, this is my way of being the big sister, or the sassy girlfriend to all the other girls out there in the dating jungle. Maybe if we all looked out for each other, we’d end up with a little less heartbreak and a lot more laughter.
“And Shane and Josh as big country fans, they remember those sassy, sexy songs, too. And when we got in the studio, Shane really leaned into the track. To see them digging into a real country song was so much fun, because they knew how to really get aggressive with the track, where to pull the instruments out, how to support me singing the lyric, where to drop everything out and let my voice do the work.”
An exacting singer, who’s known for her ability to nail a song’s dynamics, range and emotions, her previous hits have worked a lot of angst. For “Next Girl,” it’s a warmer, shinier delivery that still packs a few big notes. On the bridge, where she goes full-frontal on the takedown babe-to-babe, she opens up wide “You’re gonna think it’s all your fault, It’s just a switch that he turns off/ You’re gonna think it’s love, but it’s NOT” into a cold stop.
“Having lost busbee, I didn’t know what I should do,” she concedes. “It’s a tough business, and when you have some success, especially with someone who’s a friend? But the more I listened to those records, the more I knew if I could find someone who understood the kind of country I grew up, this was what I’m supposed to be doing.”
With a fourth CMA nomination for Best New Artist, Pearce is proving the adage “to thine own self be true.” If she’s not chasing a trend, she’s creating a path for fans of the same post-modern retro-country that’s long on feminism without ever speaking the word and a wink to say no matter how dour, she’s got this.
“Next Girl” will drop at midnight this evening. Make sure you pre-add it RIGHT HERE.