Photo: Allister Ann
Carly Pearce on '29: Written In Stone,' Relating to Kacey Musgraves & Becoming The Country Artist She's Always Wanted To Be
"So much has happened to me in the last year," Carly Pearce wrote in an Instagram post announcing her forthcoming third album, 29: Written in Stone. It's a bit of an understatement: Nine months after losing her longtime producer busbee to brain cancer in 2019, the country star filed for divorce from fellow country singer Michael Ray.
But, as Pearce wrote, in the wake of the heartbreak, "Some unbelievable things started happening." Just days before her divorce went public, Pearce landed her second No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart with the apologetic Lee Brice collaboration "I Hope You're Happy Now," which went on to win Pearce her first Country Music Award and Academy of Country Music Award (she took home two ACMs, including Single of the Year).
Last fall, the Kentucky native released the lead single from her next project, the uptempo cautionary tale "Next Girl." The song's twangy production is arguably the most reminiscent of the '90s country that inspired Pearce to pursue her own music career when she began performing at just 11 years old. The singer herself could feel it, too.
"When we wrote 'Next Girl,'" she recalls to GRAMMY.com, "I was like, 'Wait a minute, this is what I always wanted to do.'"
Pearce harnessed that same energy as she continued to process her hardships and write songs. Five months later, she unveiled an EP titled 29, a raw and emotional account of what she'd been through. But as Pearce says, songs "just kept happening," and she quickly realized there was more to her story.
29: Written in Stone—arriving Sept. 17 via Big Machine—is an exceptional combination of Pearce's crafty songwriting (see: "Liability") and '90s country influence, resulting in the singer's most confident display yet. And that was clearly apparent from the first portion: The morning of Pearce's chat with GRAMMY.com saw the singer earn CMA nominations for Female Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year, her first in each category. While she admits the nods are "hard to process," she also acknowledges the kind of impact her vulnerability has had on fans and industry players alike. "People have really responded to this so amazingly."
Ahead of the album's release, Pearce will have an in-depth conversation at the GRAMMY Museum on Sept. 13, also performing as part of Big Machine's Spotlight Saturdays on Sept. 18. Her interview will be viewable on the Museum's official streaming platform, COLLECTION:live.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Pearce before release week (and her GRAMMY events) to hear how 29 evolved into a full-length album, the women of country who inspired her and why she's finally the artist that pre-teen Carly envisioned.
Take me through the progression of 29 the EP into 29: Written in Stone. How did your feelings change in the time between the two?
In the beginning, I wasn't quite sure what 29 was. I just knew I needed to get some things off my chest. "Messy" felt like a really good stopping point. I'm very much a situational writer, so when I wrote that song, I was like, "Okay, this feels like I'm done for a while."
I remember turning it in, and continuing to feel inspired to write. The songs just kept happening. These ideas would come to me, and it was forming almost faster than I could keep up.
Losing my producer, busbee, was a really interesting experience for me of looking at music completely different. I was very overwhelmed with the idea of even continuing on in music without him. I felt like I had unleashed this part of me that I was always supposed to find musically and sonically with this really country sound.
I think what I didn't realize is, I was kind of going through all of this in real time. Now when I go back and I listen to this project, it really is grief and realization of something that was so difficult—but then getting on the other side, which is a really powerful part of it. That's why I wanted the second half to be in color instead of black and white like the first.
Was there anything outside of your divorce and losing busbee that inspired songs on this album?
I think it was those two things. It was a blow to my professional life, losing my counterpart. [Busbee] is who helped form my sound, so to think he wasn't there was so difficult. Then, to have such an equal blow to my personal life—it still makes me quite emotional to think about how lost I felt in the beginning. Just, "How is this all happening to me at once?"
Was there anything you learned from busbee that had an impact on the making of this project?
The biggest thing—and I have just started to even be able to talk about this without being so emotional—but I went to see him two weeks before he died. The very last thing that he said to me was that he just wanted me to fly. I remember not really understanding what that meant in the beginning.
He knew that I had taken so much time in Nashville trying to make this whole career happen, and he knew the struggles. He knew the insecurities—how I was just a little unsure of myself in a writer's room or in front of a mic. Now, looking at it, I knew I needed to show him I could fly in all of those ways. Even when I woke up today and saw the album of the year [nomination], I was like, "God, I did it. I I tapped into what he told me to do and just gave it everything I had."
That's a heavy thing, but it's also so incredible.
I don't even know how to explain it. Also, the fact that "I Hope You're Happy Now" was the last song he ever worked on in his career, and look at what that song did for me as well. It almost feels like he's been here at every single step, like he really never did leave me.
You've said that this album is the biggest representation of the kind of music you've always wanted to make as a country artist. Was there a certain song that felt like a turning point for you in getting to that feeling?
"Next Girl" was one of the very first songs we wrote for this project. As soon as that one came out the way that it did, just with that '90s country feel to it, I was like, "Wait a minute, this is what I always wanted to do."
One of the musicians on the album, Josh Matheny, he's been with me for all of my albums. While I was singing the scratch vocal for "Next Girl" in the studio, he texted me and said, "I've never heard you sing more like yourself than right now."
Did you feel that too?
Yes. I knew it. That's the music that I grew up on.
What made it feel different?
In interviews, people would ask me, "What do you want to be?" and I was always like, "I want [to be a member of] the Grand Ole Opry and I want to be a country music purist." I never quite felt like my music translated that completely, because it was still heavily pop-produced on a lot of things.
What I found was [29: Written in Stone co-producers] Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne loved '90s country like I did. It opened this understanding of the same way that we listened to music growing up that I had never experienced with busbee, [since] he was a pop producer.
Do you think that you would have worked with Shane and Josh if you hadn't lost busbee?
That's such an interesting thing that I've thought about quite a bit. It's almost like you don't know what you're missing until you find it. I knew that there was a little bit of a disconnect that I was still trying to find, but I don't necessarily think that I thought, "I need to change my producer."
It's interesting, because I feel like this is how it was supposed to be. I believe wholeheartedly that busbee was supposed to help me find my way, and I was supposed to make those two albums with him and start this beautiful journey in country music. But I do think I was meant to move on.
I wrote with both of [Josh and Shane] previously—I wrote one of my favorite songs ever with Shane and busbee, "If My Name Was Whiskey" from my first record. But [Josh and Shane] were blown away at my ability as a writer [now]. I've written so many songs in this town, but I hadn't really written like that.
Was there a '90s country song that helped you get through the pain you were experiencing as you wrote this album?
"You Don't Even Know Who I Am" by Patty Loveless is one of my absolute favorite songs. That shows you exactly the kind of artist that I wanted to be, in the lyric and the honesty.
Patty Loveless is the big influence for me. Loving her music, loving how she wrote songs, loving the kind of songs she cut. A strong woman with true substance to her lyrics, but songs that just felt so good.
Even before she became a part of the full-length album [on "Dear Miss Loretta," a doting tribute to Loretta Lynn], I had this thought of "What would Patty Loveless do?" and it stemmed from when we wrote "Next Girl." [Her song] "Blame It On Your Heart" is where "Next Girl" came from.
I was pushed to own what happened to me and own my truth in a way that I never had quite thought about—because nobody thinks, "Oh, my marriage is gonna fail in front of the world." Thinking about her and the way she would write songs is why I just owned it.
You co-wrote with a lot of female singer-songwriters on this album, including your peers Kelsea Ballerini on "Diamondback" and Ashley McBryde, who features on "Never Wanted to Be That Girl." What do you feel like your female collaborators brought to the storytelling for an album of this context?
I think just having a female perspective—a lot of these women were my friends, and it was important for me to feel safe by women, and almost affirming my feelings through women. These women were the first to message me as soon as my divorce came out, and really care about me as a person. I was able to be brutally honest in those rooms because I felt safe with them.
29: Written in Stone is coming out a week after Kacey Musgraves released her own post-divorce album with star-crossed. In a way, did having someone going through a similar situation at the same time—and in the public eye—make you feel less alone? Or at least give you some reassurance that being this honest in your music is what you should be doing?
It's very interesting, because so much of Golden Hour was about her husband, and so much of my sophomore album was about mine. I remember her divorce announcement came out very soon—I mean weeks—after mine. I've known her for a long time, and just hurting for her, and knowing what that felt like, and very much feeling like, "Oh my God, somebody else my age knows what it feels like."
I have to say that as a fan of music, I'm very much looking forward to her album. I feel like in a lot of ways, I will be able to listen to something and maybe not feel alone myself in the way that some people are probably listening to our music.
I do think it's a very powerful thing that two women didn't get it right the first time. We're young, we're only two years apart, and we're owning our truth in our own artistic ways. It reminds me of the kind of music that I grew up on with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette singing these unapologetic songs, like "The Pill" or "D-I-V-O-R-C-E.," and just owning it. I'm proud of that, and I'm proud of Kacey for doing that.
In the very beginning of putting this album out, I remember the hundreds of messages that I got from fans in a way that I've never gotten. Sure, I've had fans say, "I relate to your music" and "You helped me through a hard time," but this felt different.
Now that we're back out on the road, I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and shared their stories. I helped them let go of a relationship, I helped them file for divorce, I helped them regain their worth, I got them out of an abusive relationship. All of these things that, to me, matter so much more than just being an artist singing on a stage.
Everybody experiences pain, and to hear that people have clung on to my music as hope, that's more empowering than anything I could ever imagine. I'm proud to have gone through what I went through for that.
Which is probably something that you weren't thinking you'd be able to say when you were initially going through all of it.
Absolutely not. And that's the beautiful part of it. I had a fan recently come up to me and she was like, "I just went through a divorce and I just don't know what to do." I said, "You're gonna be okay." She's looking at me, on the other side, and she's like, "Are you sure?" and I said, "Yes, I know it." That's such a cool relationship that I now have with fans.
Is there a song on 29: Written in Stone that feels like the pinnacle Carly Pearce song to you, at least thus far?
Gosh, that's so hard. "29" is the song that I never wished I'd write, but am now so blown away that I wrote. I never wanted to write a song that talked about something like going through a divorce. But the fact that I went that deep, just went for it, and was brutally honest, that just really, really makes me proud.
[Written in Stone comes from] a lyric in the very last song on the album, "Mean It This Time"—"When I say forever/ I'm gonna write it in stone." So I kind of got to thinking about what "write it in stone" means to me.
I came up with, "Life is indelible, and your words, your actions, and your truth should be written in stone." That's exactly what I've done on this project. I can put it out there, let it out, and shut the door. This is the kind of album I never wanted to make, but in hindsight, it's the best thing that ever happened to me.