Makin' Tracks: Newlywed Carly Pearce Works Out Private Pain in Public Duet With Lee Brice

Courtesy of Big Machine Records & Curb Records
Lee Brice and Carly Pearce

When Carly Pearce wed Michael Ray on Oct. 6, he was hardly the only male country singer in her life.

Just nine days prior, Big Machine and Curb had jointly released her current single, “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” to terrestrial radio via PlayMPE. The title came from co-writer Luke Combs, and the guy singing with her was Lee Brice, rather than her husband. That might sound like a musical soap opera, but it’s actually a well-thought-out series of partnerships.

“Why would I have my husband do a song with me where he would be playing the part of my ex-boyfriend?” she asks rhetorically. “It’d be really weird.”

Ray’s voice may not be present in “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” but his influence is. Pearce wrote it in the summer of 2018, shortly after the couple announced publicly that they had started dating. Pearce and Combs had already agreed to try co-writing, and when they got into the room with songwriter Jonathan Singleton (“Yours If You Want It,” “A Guy Walks Into a Bar”), Combs helped her put some of her misgivings about a previous relationship into a song.

“I wanted to write about this scenario that I was living, and he just really was able to get right in there with me,” she says. “I think it’s something that all of us have gone through, and he was able to tap into that emotion.”

Heartbreak songs often treat the jilted lover as a victim and the jiltor as heartless. But Pearce wanted to concoct a piece recognizing that both parties are hurting. Combs found the “I Hope You’re Happy Now” hook listed in a file in his phone, and it presented an opportunity to capture both people’s sadness.

“I had the idea, like, ‘What if this was a duet where the guy also says, “I hope you’re happy now,” but he’s doing it from his perspective?’ ” recalls Combs. “Then the last chorus ended up being kind of like a Broadway show where all the songs come together at the end and they’re singing them all at once.”

Combs became a bit of an actor in the room, as he and Pearce mostly assumed the attitudes of the two people in the song’s relationship.

“We wrote it so literal, and he was able to kind of just completely focus on the pissed-off side of things as a guy,” she says. “I was able to focus on just being sorry.”

Singleton launched into a chord progression on guitar, and Pearce’s feelings tumbled out in a vulnerable first-verse flurry. After taking full responsibility for the breakup in that stanza, it progressed to a more anthemic chorus as she wished for her ex to “get moving on, all figured out.’ ” Artist schedules intervened after that, and they left the song unfinished.

A short time later, Combs and Singleton wrote with Randy Montana (“Beer Never Broke My Heart,” “Thank God for You”) after hunting deer at Combs’ rural home. In the middle of another song, Combs suggested they finish writing the male half of “I Hope You’re Happy Now.” It was a good call.

“I know the guy personally that Carly was dating before,” says Montana. “So that clicked in the room that day, which was interesting.”

Using the same melody, the new section takes a different turn. Instead of a fragile apology, verse two becomes an angry outburst. Rather than praying in the chorus that he finds a way to move forward, he instead confesses his turmoil: “I’m a wreck, I’m a mess.”

Making it even more intricate, the song is written in genderless form. A man could sing the first verse as easily as Pearce and a woman sing Brice’s parts without changing any words.

“It’s hard to walk that tightrope of, like, a guy could sing it and it makes sense and a girl could sing it and it makes sense,” says Montana. “But when you do, I think it’s a really good song.”

The final chorus added two extra lines, allowing both the woman and the man to repeat and juxtapose their positions from the first two refrains.

Pearce did the tracking session with late producer busbee (Keith Urban, Maren Morris) at Blackbird Studios, with Ilya Toshinsky’s acoustic guitar chords and Josh Matheny’s Dobro fills creating a solid country backbone. Pearce knocked out her lead vocals at busbee’s home studio in Los Angeles’ Altadena neighborhood, and Combs later did a vocal track of his own. Pearce was anxious to get it into the marketplace quickly, but Combs had his own album, What You See Is What You Get, due on Nov. 8, and they agreed that someone else should take the male part.

“I knew that I wouldn’t be able to be around to help promote the song in the way that it deserves to be pushed,” says Combs. “Me being on there and not having the time and availability to give 100% would have been doing her a disservice.”

Pearce had thought of Brice repeatedly during the writing session, and he quickly agreed to cover Combs’ part once he heard the song, which he understood from both points of view.

“I have been the culprit that let it drag on too long, knowing that it wasn’t right,” Brice says. “When something’s going on and you’re not in it, they feel it and then they start getting insecure. If you wait too long like that, it’s just a tough thing.”

Brice cut his vocals on Aug. 2 before a show at the Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho, using a studio rig on his bus. They lacked access to shore power, so they kept the generator running, which posed a sound problem.

“We ran the microphone cables out of the bus and went right across the sidewalk, into the back door of the theater, right into the first room there and put some curtains up, and put our mic right out there in this little room,” he remembers.

In his first take, Brice emulated Combs’ approach to the song, but after Pearce heard it, she asked him to ignore Combs’ phrasing and do what she called “that Lee Brice thing.” Befitting the song, his harmonies were more complex on the second version.

“He intertwines with me in this awesome way,” she says.

The heartbreak duet was accompanied by real-life pain when busbee died the day after “I Hope You’re Happy Now” was released. Pearce’s self-titled sophomore album, due Valentine’s Day, is the last project busbee completed.

“I’m having a really hard time,” she admits. “busbee was like a family member to me. But with all of that being said, I feel like it’s my duty to celebrate this record because to me, that’s so special that I got the last finished product from him.”

“I Hope You’re Happy Now” rises to No. 35 in its seventh charted week on Country Airplay, having navigated a journey that does not involve Pearce’s new husband directly, but does owe a creative debt to Combs, Brice, busbee and Pearce’s ex-boyfriend.

“I think that person that I hurt knows that I’m sorry,” she says. “That makes me feel good.”

Maybe even happy now.

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