Carly Pearce is standing tall and giving herself grace, but she had to endure a series of growing pains in order to get there.
At the beginning of quarantine in early 2020, Pearce retreated to Alabama with her family where she made a phone call to a friend that solidified her future personally and professionally, setting the stage for her vulnerable new album, 29. “‘I think I’m going have to write a song called ’29,’ make a project around it, the year I got married and divorced,’” Pearce confided in her friend, the latter statement lending itself as the anchor of the chorus to the album’s title track. Soon after, news broke that Pearce and Michael Ray were divorcing after eight months of marriage, a private matter on public display that led Pearce to self-admitted feelings of embarrassment and shame. But she channeled those painful emotions into art, finding a renewed voice through collaborators Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who helped her craft seven gorgeous songs that turned her anguish into healing.
“When you’re a songwriter first, you have to tell your truth. You have to say it like it is, and I didn’t want to shy away from that,” Pearce shares with Sounds Like Nashville and other media about her headspace going into the project. ”I think you’re getting the most authentic version of me because I have no fences around me with this. I’m not doing anything differently. I’m honestly telling my truth yet again, maybe a little bit more raw than even I knew I could do.”
With an album filled with pure refection and candid storytelling, one of the most heart-rendering moments arrives with “29.” Alongside a crying fiddle, Pearce offers a poignant look at how she envisioned her life to be the year before hitting the milestone age of 30 – paying mortgage instead of rent, drinking whiskey from a higher shelf and living self-sufficiently. Instead, Pearce finds herself lost and feeling like she’s running out of time. “The year I was gonna live it up / Now I’m never gonna live it down,” she sings with genuine emotion. “For me, 29 was such a huge year of so much loss,” she reflects, pointing to that defining final line of the chorus. “This is a part of my story. It does not define me, but it is a part of it, and I think in a lot of ways through life, all of us deal with things that maybe we didn’t think were going to happen to us, and you either have to let them define you or let them refine you. This is my song to myself of going ‘I’m going to own it.’”
The Kentucky-born singer describes “29” as her “Tammy Wynette moment.” Citing the “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” singer as the “queen of heartbreak,” Pearce leaned into inspiration from Wynette and the many other strong women of country music including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless and her neighbor Jeannie Seely for their ability to openly process their struggles, making a habit out of fearlessly sharing their truths. “I think those women, why they’re idols is because they were not fearful and unapologetically were themselves,” Pearce observes. “Everybody who stood for something and was vulnerable enough to go there, they’re the ones that changed the faces of country music and changed people’s lives because they went there. We referenced all of those people when we were writing.”
Pearce particularly channeled their spirits and her love of the women of 90s country into “Next Girl,” the banjo-heavy song that she was so confident in that she marched into the office of her record label, Big Machine Label Group, determined to make it the lead single. Serving as the first song she wrote with Osborne and McAnally, Pearce stated that she wanted to write a “love letter” to the next woman who dates her ex, McAnally encouraging her to write a female anthem like the ones she admired from the women of 90s country, translating her message into a warning for the next girl as she sings, “The ex-girl / She tried like hell / It was too late to save herself / So now she’s just trying to help / The next girl.” “I didn’t even know I was capable of writing one of those because I’ve always written things that were so serious, and this is so serious, but it feels so good,” Pearce professes.
The spirited energy of “Next Girl” that opens the project is followed by the contemplative “Should’ve Known Better” where she not only condemns her former lover for taking advantage of her good will, but also herself for not seeing the signs in time, Pearce admitting that she wishes she could go back and “hug” her past self when hearing the song from a refreshed perspective. “When you go through things, you assign so much blame to yourself, and then you go through a process where you want to assign everything to the other person,” she explains, calling the song “so special.” “I think in that moment, I was really struggling with ‘why didn’t I know,’ and I think that’s just human nature to take it on. It’s a side of me that I haven’t really ever shared, but it felt right to share there.” But where she holds a mirror up to herself and her past on “Should’ve Known Better,” she greets her future with a healthy dose of empathy on “Messy.” The comforting melody balances the honest truths that “heartbreak isn’t sexy” and there’s no way to make light of “going through hell.” But on the other side of heartache, she rewards herself with some much-deserved grace, layered by her angelic voice reassuring that “everything’s gonna be fine.” “It was important for me to write that because maybe in the beginning I didn’t give myself grace,” the singer confesses. ”I think going through things and truly feeling them has made me realize it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to have a good moment and then immediately not be okay. I think you just have to feel all of those things and give yourself grace and love yourself and understand you’re going to be better for it, but you need to feel it in order to get better.”
Pearce takes the first steps toward getting better by bringing the album to a close with the self-assured “Day One.” McAnally and Osborne started writing the song years ago with Old Dominion frontman Matthew Ramsey, but they left it unfinished, opening the door for Pearce to complete the story. Though still processing the hurt, the lyrics look ahead to when she is on the other side of grief, cognizant of the fact that she has an empowering future on the horizon by taking that monumental first step toward healing. “I’ll get over you / If I just get through day one,” she coaches herself, bringing the album to a motivational conclusion. “I feel like this song is so key in this because I feel like when you’re going through any kind of struggle, it seems overwhelming to even get out of bed or even take a breath. At times, I couldn’t even take a breath,” she recalls. “This song is all about telling you ‘if you can just get through day one, get through the first step, you’ll be okay.’”
Pearce reveals that with all the material she’s gathered from the past year, in addition to new ideas that have come to her since 29 was complete, she feels like she’s already written the next album. But until then, she’s reveling in the outpouring of support from fans who have flooded her inbox with messages of how her music is relating to their lives, their personal stories reminding her of her true purpose in life. “I use the analogy ‘I feel like I’ve been taken back down to dust to be rebuilt even better,’” she remarks. “Life isn’t always fun. Life can be hard, and I feel like writing these songs reminded me of my purpose. Our purpose in life is to love others and to make a difference, and I felt like this was an opportunity for me to dig in and stand tall in an area that I felt so much shame around for a while,” she proclaims. “It’s the ripple effect of if you stand tall and own yourself, you’re going to help other people, and I think it’s so powerful.”