Carly Pearce is thankful for many things that are helping her heal after her divorce from fellow artist Michael Ray — the love of family and friends, the wisdom of faith, the insight of therapy, the comfort of a new puppy. But she reserves a special gratitude for something else.
"Country music," she says, "has saved my life in 2020."
It has, of course, given the 30-year-old artist perhaps the best year of her career. On Wednesday, she took home her first CMA award, for musical event of the year, for her No. 1 smash hit, "I Hope You're Happy Now." She was nominated for two more CMAs — song and music video of the year — for the duet with Lee Brice, as well as for new artist of the year. And she earned a coveted performance spot on the broadcast, singing "I Hope You're Happy Now" with Lady A's Charles Kelley (after Brice tested positive for COVID-19).
But apart from the accolades, country music has been in Pearce's corner in many other ways as she navigates her healing process. For one thing, it's given her focus as she's embarked on creating new music — and a new sound.
In September 2019, Pearce suffered another blow when she lost her longtime musical mentor, Busbee, who died of brain cancer at age 43. The producer of both her albums, Busbee — who had a West Coast pop background — helped Pearce find the pop-infused sound of her first No. 1, "Every Little Thing," as well as other popular singles such as "Hide the Wine" and "Closer to You." But since his death, Pearce has been pursuing a more 1990s country sound, the music that first inspired her. She says she has Busbee to thank, as well, for this new shift.
"I think it's ultimately the music that I always wanted to make," Pearce says. "The nineties was where my heart was when I first moved to town."
She traces the genesis of her new drive to "I Hope You're Happy Now," which she co-wrote with Luke Combs, Randy Montana and Jonathan Singleton. "That song, sonically, was everything that I wanted to do musically forever," says Pearce. It turned out to be the final song Busbee produced on Pearce's album, and despite his pop roots, he leaned into the song's more traditional country flavor.
"Busbee gave me that gift through that song," Pearce says, "He made me realize this is the turning point for me."
When radio's embrace of the song only affirmed that turning point, Pearce and her label made a bold move, deciding "I Hope You're Happy Now" would be the final single from the album she released in February. She's since turned her sights to exploring new, more countrified melodies, resulting in latest single, "Next Girl." The sassy breakup song became the most-added track in country radio the week it was released in September, and it's continuing to gain momentum.
Pearce co-wrote "Next Girl" with hitmakers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who both brought their lifelong love for country to the table.
"I felt like this was the right sonic situation," says Pearce. "I want to be a purist in a country format, and I just felt like I found that with Shane and Josh. When we got in the room, I had this idea and they ran with it, and it just felt right."
The song has an added sizzle as a warning from a woman who's been jilted by a charmer — lyrics that have some listeners trying to hear clues about Pearce's divorce. But she insists the track wasn't inspired by the breakup. "I have encountered this guy quite a few times in my life," she says. "I left this relationship. I certainly don't want to relive it every night in a song."
On the other hand, she also says she's not ready to abandon songs that her romance with Ray inspired. She co-wrote "Heart's Going Out of Its Mind," for example, in the days after the two first fell in love, and she says, "There's no denying that's totally about Michael."
Before a recent virtual show, her band leader suggested she perform the song, and she says she had no hesitation. "I look at my albums as yearbooks," she says. "This was a time in my life I celebrate that I was so in love — and that doesn't mean I can't celebrate the moments in my life. I really was in love with him. Somebody in my crowd somewhere is going to be so in love, and maybe the song will be more for my fans that can identify with that love feeling."
That said, she adds, "My intro to the song might change!"
As Pearce continues to explore her new sound, she's also been dipping into the music that made her fall in love with country. Among the covers she's recently posted on her socials are Rascal Flatt's "Bless the Broken Road" and Garth Brooks' "The Dance," two classics that offer counsel about heartbreak. Both, says Pearce, now hit close to home.
The cover of "Bless the Broken Road," she explains, was the response to a challenge from former tour-mates Rascal Flatts. "When I was singing it, I was like, oh my gosh, I feel this!" Pearce says about the song that pays tribute to second chances. "I always liked this song, but now I listen to it, and I'm hopeful."
"The Dance" also resonates, but in a different way, she says. "I could've missed the pain," Pearce says, referring to both her circumstances and the song's lyrics, "but I would've missed the love that was real for me."
Both songs, she adds, "are actually speaking to me, and that's why country music is the best. There's something there for everyone. I didn't know these songs were going to mean something to me."
As she looks to the future, Pearce knows she can rely on music to continue to be a healing force in her life, whether she's listening to it or making it. "I've had a lot of loss this year," she says, "but I feel like I've gained a lot, too."
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