Gabby Barrett
Country

Chartbreaker: Gabby Barrett Prepared Herself For Stardom — and Rejection — Long Before 'American Idol'

Gabby Barrett’s country career began with an Adele song.

At the age of 10, the Pennsylvania native heard “Rolling In the Deep” on a car radio in December 2010, just as the song was about to take off. Barrett was singing the chorus at home when her dad heard her voice and stopped her by the Christmas tree.

“He said, ‘I want to video this,’” Barrett recalls. “He thought there was something there.”

A year later, Barrett played her first show in Munhall, a suburb of Pittsburgh, to a crowd of 50 people, a majority of whom were family and friends. Though she had been singing in her church choir, that show proved to Barrett herself that her dad’s instincts were right.

Over the next six years, Barrett performed just about anywhere she could — restaurants, malls, even grocery stores — as long as it was within driving distance, as her parents insisted she stay in school. “We could only miss up to 29 [school] days a year,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and I missed 29 days every single year.”

Robby Klein
Gabby Barrett

As one of eight children, Barrett says money was also a limitation. She remembers once having the power pulled on her house, and often having to pack lunches for road trips to shows because they couldn’t afford to stop and eat. But nothing held Barrett back from continuing the grind: she averaged 150 shows a year, with the simple goal of making her name known.

At 14, Barrett expanded to songwriting, penning a teen-spirit tune called “Young Blood” that she performed live on air on local station FROGGY 104.3's The Danger Show a few times. But her focus remained on performance. “I was a terrible writer at first,” she says. “I really respected women that could sing their tails off and entertain really well, so I wanted to get that across before I brought any of my own music into it.”

Covering an array of artists in her sets, including Shania Twain, Journey, Taylor Swift and Adele (“Rolling in the Deep,” of course), Barrett says that she gravitated towards country music, particularly its dedicated fan base. “I noticed from a young age that [in country] you can do one song when you’re 25, and still have fans until you’re 85,” Barrett says. “It’s not like that with other genres.”

Now 20, Barrett may already have her very own signature hit with “I Hope,” a breakup song in which a scorned woman wishes that her ex’s new girlfriend serves him some karma. The song’s slow-burning electric guitar and swirling production highlight Barrett’s smoky tone, with its dynamic chorus showcasing her vocal power. The singer wrote the track with rising Nashville songwriter Zachary Kale (Florida Georgia Line) and country hitmaker Jon Nite (Keith Urban) on Halloween in 2018, about six months after she’d placed third on Season 16 of American Idol.

Barrett was scouted for the show via email in late 2017 (“At first I was like, ‘This has to be spam,’” she remembers with a laugh). After a successful run — during which judge Luke Bryan proclaimed she’d “take this base and grow with it far beyond this competition” — Barrett thought she’d easily land a record deal upon the show’s end, and was quickly proven wrong. She approached every label in town, but none were interested, because they didn't think she had the songwriting skills to back up her TV credentials.

Barrett released “I Hope” independently in January 2019, and the song gradually gained traction thanks in part to early placement by iTunes and SiriusXM; by April, labels were knocking on her door. She performed acoustically for a few Nashville imprints, but Warner Music Nashville stuck out after chairman/CEO John Esposito declared she had to be a Warner artist. “He said, ‘I’ve never been this adamant with anyone except one other group,’” she recalls. That other group was Grammy-winning duo Dan + Shay.

Upon signing Barrett in May last year, Warner immediately put her on a radio tour to maintain the song’s momentum, a move in line with what Barrett had emphasized in all of her meetings: “I needed a label that was invested in this like I’m invested in this.” Eleven months later, “I Hope” has reached No. 3 on the Country Airplay chart (dated April 11). Barrett and labelmate Ingrid Andress have made history as the first two women to land their solo debut hits in the tally’s top 10 simultaneously (Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine” is No. 5 on the April 11-dated chart).

Though she’s the youngest artist in the top 10 of both Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs (she's No. 2 on the April 11-dated chart), Barrett insists that her age hasn’t impacted any of her opportunities thus far — after all, she is already nine years into her career. And with her debut set on the way later this year (which she teases will have some “cool collaborations,” genre-bending songs and country super-producer Ross Copperman at the helm), Barrett says, “I’m just glad to be making some noise.”

As for her dad, who helped start it all? “He’s just sitting back and enjoying watching everything finally take off,” Barrett adds. “I want to make him really proud — and buy him a house or something someday.”

A version of this article will appear in the April 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.