In country music, the pendulum has always swung between the extremes of pop-friendly silkenness and raw-boned twang, a dialectic that the late Richard Peterson codified in his influential, two-decade-old text Creating Country Music: Fabrication Authenticity. There’s a perception that the tension between the two has intensified in an era when some of the millennial acts releasing music through country channels come off less as pop-country crossover candidates than pop natives. Every Little Thing, the debut album from Carly Pearce is a reminder that nimble young music-makers can have it both ways.
The 27-year-old singer and songwriter from tiny Taylor Mill, Ky., found an instructive model in Alison Krauss, who parlayed bluegrass sensibilities into Adult Contemporary sophistication — or as I put it earlier this year, staked out a position “between mastering a well-mapped musical lineage and embracing a broad-minded, pop-attuned versatility.” Pearce likewise entered her adolescence singing bluegrass, and was serious enough about showbiz even then to switch to homeschooling so that she could take a performing gig at Dollywood. Eventually she moved to Nashville, and after a failed development deal with a major label, found a fitting partner in busbee, a writer-producer who evenly straddles pop and country currents and the L.A. and Nashville scenes.
Pearce first turned heads with her ballad “Every Little Thing.” Its naked arrangement stood out amidst the dense, driving production relied on by many of her contemporaries, summoning a slow-burning impact not unlike Cam’s “Burning House” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” have in recent years. Pearce’s song, one of eight on the album that she co-wrote, deploys distinctive textures: a muffled, minimalistic drum pattern and a bruised, lilting melody traced by piano and dobro.
Pearce was drawn to the empathetic, voice-like potential of the latter instrument, she noted in a promo video, because of “the relationship between [Krauss’s singing] and Jerry Douglas’s dobro playing.” She told axs.com, “busbee really let me drive that to be a sparse track that still feels progressive, yet the harmonies and the melody feel very familiar to my bluegrass background. Obviously, he allowed the dobro to be the only other thing in the track that’s shiny.”
That’s a pleasing template that Pearce and busbee tinker with throughout the album, layering the contributions of studio pros — some of whom, including dobro player Josh Matheny and guitarists Carl Miner and Ilya Toshinskiy, have string band backgrounds — over loose-fitting programmed beats.
As a vocalist, Pearce has a Krauss-like ability to find elegant sensuality in emotional suffering, but Pearce’s approach to singing isn’t nearly as ethereal. “Baby, your ghost still holds me, but I don’t wanna sleep with him no more,” she moans, with subtle, R&B-style shifts in tonality.
“Hide the Wine” and “Catch Fire” bring Pearce’s hybrid into even clearer view. The former has a red-blooded, mountain blues melody that one could imagine being sung with a hurtling bluegrass attack. Only, she drastically relaxes her phrasing, slyly reclining against the backbeat of an insouciant hip-hop loop. “Catch Fire” is a study in funky, down-home forwardness, her syncopated figures snaking around a lumbering groove. “Don’t waste your time on sweet formalities,” she dares. “Just show me your originality.” She milks “time” and “your,” her bluesy note-bending stretching them into two-syllable words.
Pearce conceived of the sturdy melodrama of “If My Name Was Whiskey,” with its yearning for mutual, stable romance, as an echo of dignified, womanly expression with which Trisha Yearwood made her mark in the 1990s. But owing to Pearce’s clipped delivery of the soaring chorus melody, her performance betrays contemporary pop fluency. The same can be said of “Doin’ It Right,” a clever confrontation during which she deftly balances suppleness with a stuttering vocal pattern, and of the propulsive number “Feel Somethin’.” She skids through the verses, stringing together lines in slick, rhythmic bursts, then applies more direct force to belting the hook.
If any one song on the album captures Pearce’s angle on bridging brisk cosmopolitanism and rural sentimentality, it’s the wistful “Need a Ride Home.” “It ain’t 3 AM and I ain’t been drinkin’,” she sings, situating herself against the backdrop of the late-night club scene. Then she plunges into nostalgia: “But I need a ride home to that little town where I’ll always be 16 years old.” She makes us feel what it’s like to maintain meaningful connections to both worlds.