Country

How Gabby Barrett Made One of 2020’s Defining Crossover Hits

Gabby Barrett
Robby Klein

Gabby Barrett

With its surprise gut-punch chorus, Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” turned heads, sparked a label bidding war and this year made country history.

Two years ago, Gabby Barrett was flying back-and-forth from her hometown of Munhall, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh, to Nashville to try to kick-start her country career. She had been making the trip since before she finished third on American Idol that spring, but intensified her efforts since the season finale in May.

During a Halloween session with songwriters Jon Nite (Keith Urban, Luke Bryan) and Zach Kale (Florida Georgia Line), the trio crafted “I Hope,” an unexpectedly vengeful breakup tune — and only the fourth song Barrett had written in Nashville. “It was a thrown-together write that wasn’t really supposed to happen,” she recalls. “That night, Jon said right before he left that this may be the biggest song of his career, and I’m thinking, ‘What? With all the No. 1s he’s had?’ ”

It proved to be a historic hit. Though Barrett, 20, first released the song independently in early 2019, the track’s plot twist — in which well-wishes for an ex-flame curdle at the end of the chorus — was irresistible to listeners. After a bidding war last year, she signed with Warner Music Nashville, which this year helped Barrett top Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, then summit both the Adult Pop Songs and the all-format Radio Songs charts with the aid of a Charlie Puth remix. “I Hope” is only the fourth song to hit No. 1 on Country Airplay and Radio Songs, and Barrett is the first artist to do so with her debut single. The track has also topped Hot Country Songs for 20 weeks — the most time at No. 1 for a solo female artist (and no other billed acts) — and reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 in November.

“Who could have planned for an artist we signed to have her first record go four-times platinum and it’s still rocking like mad?” asks Warner Music Nashville chairman/CEO John “Espo” Esposito. “It’s crazy.” Here’s how one of 2020’s defining crossover hits came to be.

“When The Teeth Come Out, It’s Something That Really Grabs People”

Gabby Barrett: I had a terrible relationship in high school that just went south, and I ended up getting my heart broken. It has happened to me and people close to me. Jon and I were going back-and-forth on ideas for the chorus, and he [joked], “What if we said, ‘And then I hope she cheats?’ ” I said, “We should go with that because that’s really how people end up feeling.” You can’t go wrong with another good cheating song in country music.

John "Espo" Esposito: When I heard the bombshell in the first chorus, I was dying to meet an 18-year-old who could summon that up.

Mike Chester (executive vp promotion, Warner Records): You want attitude in pop records. She brings you in with this sweet vocal, and then when the teeth come out, it’s something that really grabs people.

Barrett: It was January 2019 when we released it. Coming off Idol that previous summer, I was thankful that that audience stayed with me. The numbers started to go crazy on all of the streaming platforms, and then label people started to pay attention.

Kelly Rich (country music lead, label relations, Amazon Music): In May 2019, we were excited to see she was trending so heavily with us, so it was an easy decision to increase our support of Gabby through playlist covers, additional programming, placement opportunities and on our homepage.

Esposito: My A&R team sent me “I Hope,” and her powerhouse vocal jumped out. I had to get her into the office. I’ve had plenty of auditions in the office where they had chops, but you didn’t see that fire in their eyes that we could with Gabby. We felt that voice and style of songwriting was the first since Shania Twain that could cross internationally, not just to the pop side of the charts here in America.

Barrett: Warner Music Nashville had an insane sense of belief in me. They really believed in the song. And Espo being from Pittsburgh — that was the cherry on top.

Esposito: When it got really competitive, we thought, “What could be the difference-maker?” Gabby’s father is a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so my dear friend [former Steelers coach] Bill Cowher called her and had an amazing conversation with her dad. Nothing was going to get in the way of signing Gabby.

“Dreaming With My Eyes Open”

Esposito: By the time we signed her in June [2019], she was doing 2 million streams a week. We went to radio in late July, and the song was struggling. We’re sharing with radio people that we were streaming like a top 10 single. We had some radio people tell us a country radio listener is not a streaming listener, so we did research to show how much overlap there was. Now, of course, everybody says, “We loved it all along!”

Johnny Chiang (director of operations, KKBQ Houston): I thought the song was very good, but what really caught my attention was the digital consumption. The [digital service providers] really playing it that much influenced my decision to spin it.

Nate Deaton (GM, KRTY San Jose, Calif.): I thought it was such a great song and performance that I knew it would react. I don’t pay that much attention to those metrics on a song this strong.

Barrett: Once it hit No. 1 on Country Airplay, I felt like I was dreaming with my eyes open. I started touring when I was 11, so for nine years I’ve been in the mindset of working hard to get to No. 1. Then when it comes into play, it’s hard to let it soak in. It has been pretty cool.

“I Almost Got Jealous, Like, ‘I Wish I Wrote This Song’ ”

Charlie Puth: I’m the pickiest person ever. I don’t fall in love with a lot of music. I heard this song in February. This is the only song that has really prompted me to directly message the artist and say, “I need to sing on this.”

Barrett: Charlie Puth reached out to me on Instagram in March or April during the pandemic. He said, “The song is absolutely killer. Is there any way I can remix this song?” I was like, “Uh, yes!”

Puth: I reached out to Gabby and said, “You’re going to take this to pop radio, right?” She said something like, “I’m not a pop artist.” I said, “I’m going to put my voice on this, and I think you’ll be able to take it to pop radio because the song is too good for it not to be heard by millions more people.” I almost got jealous, like, “I wish I wrote this song.”

Chester: For us, it was about being disciplined enough to not go too soon, to allow for this record to bake into the fabric of country and come to the point where it was undeniable for [pop radio].

Esposito: Six or seven years ago, if you crossed over, country radio would say, “You don’t care about us anymore.” Now they go, “OK, as long as the artist gives us the love and attention [and says] this is their home, they’re good.”

Chester: At top 40, we had a lot more [stations] playing the Charlie Puth version. You typically will have 25 to 30 stations that just categorically refuse to play a country crossover record, so that prevents you from going into the top 10. It’s very rare for a country artist to cross over like this.

“She Has Absolutely Kicked The Door Open”

Rich: In June [2020], global first-day streams for Gabby’s album, Goldmine, exceeded those for any other debut country album ever on Amazon Music. So far this year, “I Hope” is the most-streamed song from a debut artist and the second-most-streamed song overall on Amazon Music in the U.S.

Chester: She has absolutely kicked the door open, and it’s wide open for her at top 40.

Puth: I’ve always wanted to have a little bit of a presence in the country world, and one day, I want to put out a country project. I went to Nashville [for the Country Music Association Awards], and there’s people with cowboy hats and boots saying that they appreciate my music. That’s a great feeling.

Esposito: Her current single, “The Good Ones,” which is streaming north of 3 million per week, was taking longer to chart than I was happy about. We heard, “I just need to keep spinning ‘I Hope,’ but I’ll get to it.” But it was a high-class problem. We’ve got Gabby fans now, not just “I Hope” fans. We really have a chance for an international superstar.

Barrett: If you had told me two years ago that the fourth song I’d ever write in Nashville would go this far, I would have said it was impossible. Yet here we are today. I think the song, minus me, will stand the test of time. I’m very blessed to be able to say I got to be part of it.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.