Photo: Rachel Deeb for Big Machine Records
By: Holly Gleason
When Carly Pearce was little, her mother made her a sparkly blue cowgirl outfit so the 6-year-old could sing at old folks’ homes and talent shows. “It was a blue dress with a white shirt, a blue vest and blue cowboy hat and I loved it!” recalls the young woman who eventually quit high school in Taylor Mill, Ky., to sing in shows at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Last month, opening for Rascal Flatts at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Amphitheater, Pearce broke down crying in front of what would be considered a hometown crowd.
Pearce, who cries happy tears, has been doing that a lot.
She signed with Big Machine Records, dropped the stark “Every Little Thing” to terrestrial radio in Feb. 2017 and released an album of the same name in October.
Pearce has quickly become the go-to girl for today’s country superstars who need a strong, ebullient female artist to open their tours. Thomas Rhett, Blake Shelton, Rascal Flatts, and Luke Bryan have taken the plucky blonde with the soul undertow with them on the road.
“Singing what she’s singing, pick any act [in country] and she’ll fit,” says Longshot Management’s Rob Baker. “The Venn diagram of who they are, without losing who she is, is always a fit. Her sound is new, but authentic to the roots of the music, so she can go a lot of places. We want to expose her to as many people as possible, so yes, it’s big tours, because once you put her onstage, she takes care of the rest.”
CAA’s Marc Dennis knows the young woman who watched her friends get deals, sang backup for Lucy Hale and cleaned Airbnbs to self-finance an EP is on fire. Kind of like Cinderella, only more about dues paid than a glass slipper, Pearce is exploding as a live artist.
“The touring strategy is just developing,” Dennis says of Pearce’s strength in a hard genre for women. “We’ll continue to put her in advantageous support situations and layer in more hard-ticket, headline opportunities as we get deeper into the album. We’ll always be more focused on quality than quantity.”
It wasn’t always like that. On the phone before a co-write somewhere on the road, she talks about the discipline of Dollywood. “I did six shows a day, five days a week. Keeping up the stamina, and making sure the first show is as good as the fourth when you’re really warmed up is everything. You learned how to sing, to protect your voice. Even when I was sick, I had to get out there.”
Pearce, a power singer who doesn’t throttle people for the sake of vocal pole-vaulting, credits the years at Dollywood with a lot of her ability to connect. She also cites touring with Hale as a way to learn while still making music.
“You see what works, what doesn’t from a whole different way of approaching music. It’s all valuable in understanding who you are, and what you want to be,” Pearce said.
“She’s a songwriter, a musician and an insane vocalist,” says Kris Lamb, Big Machine Records Promotions VP. “And she’s a grinder. It’s like she’s waited so long, she wants to play everything out there that makes sense … and she can do it all: guitar pulls, acoustic trios, full band shows.
“What’s popular now are these eight-man jams, and radio’s been reaching out (to the label), because there aren’t a lot of females they feel they want to put in that environment. But Carly always holds her own.”
“Hide The Wine,” the follow-up to her debut No. 1 single, is now in the mid-20s, and Lamb expects it to peak by year-end.
“A great song can be a great song,” says Lamb. “But radio can smell what’s authentic. We all know music is a celebration of life, and when Carly gets out there, she’s so happy to be there, you can feel it. We can’t ‘create’ that, but ultimately, it’s how you get long-term investment. If you can instill confidence this is a viable artist, that’s something that’s bigger than any single.”
“The reason is her confidence level,” Baker concurs. “She knows this is her life, her career, her dream. She flipped that switch when she left her grandparents and moved to Dollywood, but when she got out there on those big arena stages, you could just see the swagger of realizing all that.”
“I’d been in Nashville for eight years, and had 10 years of road experience when all this started happening,” she explains., “I felt very ready, and eager. I was like, ‘Get me out there!’ And once they did, I wasn’t stopping. SiriusXM let us start touring before radio caught up; it even let radio see what I was doing, because I love to sing for people.
“I only have one album. I may only have 20 or 30 minutes. But I’m going to talk to them, take them on a Carly Pearce journey while giving them some slow songs, some uptempo songs and showing them exactly who I am.”
“That’s for sure Carly,” Baker agrees. “She’s gonna tell you what she’s feeling, no matter what it is. People recognize that honesty, and they respond. She realized it’s easier to be who you are, and when people liked that, it was a Sally Field moment.”
The emotional transparency really is part of it. She laughs talking about getting the news “Every Little Thing” was the No. 1 song in the country.
“I was onstage at Cotton Eyed Joe’s in Knoxville, and I sobbed my eyes out right in front of everybody. It had taken so much to get there, and then, well, there we were.”
She’s also made the most of another dream: the Grand Ole Opry. Her manager says, “She’s played 53 times at the Opry. By the time this runs, I’m sure it will be 54. She books herself a lot out there, just to be there, to sing and be part of it.”
Pearce doesn’t sidestep it. She loves the heritage, but it’s also connecting with people who’ve come to the Opry seeking country – and just connecting in general.
“I’m a workaholic,” she says, winding up the conversation. “I want to be on the road. I want to be playing my music for people. I’ve worked and waited a long time to be here. For me, this is everything, being on the road. It’s all I’ve wanted, and I’m going to keep going.”