In an alternate life, Carly Pearce might have given up on her dream. Sure, it feels nice to act as though with enough perseverance anyone can find success, but the reality is that most aren’t cut out for the journey. So yeah, Pearce could have packed it in at many points during those nine years she spent in Nashville losing record deals, taking odd jobs and, as she recalls now, “climbing this stupid [music industry] ladder that kicked me, bruised me, beat me down and made me cry.” But that’s not her.
To hear the 28-year-old Kentucky native tell it, “No one can tell you when you’re done with your dream and when it’s time to give up. I’m just very blessed that I got to hit the jackpot,” admits Pearce, whose breakout single “Every Little Thing” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart last November, one month after the release of her debut album of the same name. She’s nothing if not a realist. Talent is of course a part of what separates her from many of her musician peers, many of whom have been in Nashville for more than a decade “and are still trying to figure it out.” She’ll cop to that. “But then there’s truly a piece of it that’s timing and luck,” Pearce offers. Ending up the position she’s in now–calling en route to catch a flight to New York to meet up with Luke Bryan for her opening gig on his stadium tour–“It’s like winning the lottery,” she says. “Who knows if, say, three years ago I’d have put ‘Every Little Thing’ out if anything would have even happened? I honestly just don’t know.”
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This weekend is the last weekend of the #whatmakesyoucountrytour ❤️ thank you @lukebryan for giving me the most amazing opportunity to end my year of touring. Your kindness, talent and heart are next to none. Thanks for all the laughs every weekend. So fun tonight. Ill miss singin with ya 😊 [@rkdeeb]
Thankfully for Pearce, such is a reality she doesn’t need to consider. It may have taken nearly a decade of struggle to get here, but in recent years life for the singer has been a sweet and steady climb to the highest levels of the country music industry: since making her Grand Ole Opry debut in 2015 after winning over its then-general manager and signing to a development deal with it-producer busbee, she’s been on a steady ascension to the current moment: Pearce released “Every Little Thing” independently in late 2016, saw it begin to get consistent spins at radio, and then inked a deal with Big Machine Label Group early the following year. Now, following a year and a half of consistently touring—which has included opening gigs for Brett Young and arena and stadium dates with Blake Shelton and Bryan—Pearce says she’s entering “a transitional phase” of her career. She’s no longer the starry-eyed new talent but is still reaching for that superstar plateau.
“I definitely think the pressure’s there to deliver,” she says of continuing her industry ascension. To that end, Pearce says she thinks it wise to continue viewing herself as a new artist, and one still hungry to get her name out there. “I realize it now takes double the work as before,” she says of making the next leap forward in her career. It’s why she’s fine still doing the occasional radio gig and “a lot of things that maybe you don’t want to do and maybe aren’t as glamorous” so that her continue their heavy radio rotation and stellar chart performances.
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“I’m sure if you polled a lot of the country music fans they would know my name by now,” she admits. “But I definitely think there’s a lot more fans to find. A lot of people are probably still only aware of me as just the girl who sings ‘Every Little Thing.’”
It helps that she just released a brave new single, “Closer to You.” Released on Nov. 2, Pearce says the love song is one of the most personal she’s ever released and, not surprisingly given her public relationship with fellow country singer Michael Ray, directly reflects her personal life. “I immediately saw my life in this song when it played,” she says of the Hillary Lindsey-penned slow burner. “I just related on so many levels to this feeling. I never intended to make a concept single but I feel it’s the natural progression that is my life. It makes sense.”
“You know it when you hear it,” she says of instantly being keyed in that the busbee-produced song should be her next single. “When I heard this one I was like ‘There it is!’ This is exactly what I wish could have said but Hillary said it perfectly. I’ve always been an artist that was very honest that the best song wins. I could get behind every single lyric in this song and it was definably what I wanted to capture.”
Busbee says, hot singles notwithstanding, it’s Pearce’s ferocious work ethic that will help her best in making that major leap to superstar status. “This is a girl who as an independent artist was renting the van, driving the van with the band all night after the show, all that stuff,” he recalls of Pearce’s life when they first met. Even more important, the producer adds, is how Pearce was willing to hear some hard truths.
When busbee first met her, Pearce had been passed over by nearly ever label in town. Whereas some artists shy away from taking constructive criticism, Pearce invited it. To that end, the producer was frank with her that while she possessed a unique and flavorful voice, her songs to that point lacked a singular enough sound to be competitive in the mainstream marketplace. “And who wants to hear that?” he says. “But she already knew that she needed help. Everything was a growing process with her? And her success? “It only happened because she listens,” busbee adds. “And she still listens to this day.”
“I know I wouldn’t be here without him,” Pearce says of the producer whom she says is “more than a mentor. He’s like family. I’ve cried in front of him, I’ve laughed with him. He’s a huge component in who I am as an artist,” she shares. “I think with success maybe some people can forget that but it’s so important to remember that those are the people that help you create what people hear on the radio. He’s a mastermind in every sense of the word.”
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Something she has admittedly had trouble mastering is how best to handle her status as a public figure. In recent times, especially once she made her relationship with Ray public, Pearce admits fans’ feelings of personal investment in her life have only gotten more intense. “People come up to me randomly in airports or grocery stores and say, ‘How’s Jackie?’ And that’s my mom. And I’m like ‘Wait, what?’ Just weird things like that.”
And then there’s other less obvious challenges: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a public place and wondered if I picked a wedgie or picked my nose and I get a tweet that says ‘Oh my God. I just saw you but didn’t want to say anything.’ I’m like ‘Oh great. What was I doing?’” But she realizes it’s a small price to pay. And plus, with her use of social media to connect with fans, it’s partially her own doing.
“In a way you’re giving them this insight. As artists we give them that. And as the realist that I am I realize that’s a part of the job. It’s a part of who I am now.”