Carly Pearce on Topping Country Airplay Chart & ‘Hoping Music Can Inspire People’
Now that she's seen her song rise to No. 1 and has had a minute to celebrate, Pearce chatted with Billboard to reflect on her journey and what's next.
Singer-songwriter Carly Pearce‘s “Every Little Thing” introduced both the rising new artist and her same-titled debut album, which entered at No. 4 on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums (chart dated Nov. 4) with 15,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music.
The ballad also topped Billboard‘s radio audience-fueled Country Airplay chart (dated Nov. 25), becoming only the third leader on the list for a female artist’s first entry (promoted to country radio) in almost 12 years, following chart-topping bows by Kelsea Ballerini (“Love Me Like You Mean It,” 2015) and Carrie Underwood (“Jesus, Take the Wheel,” 2006).
The 27-year-old Pearce knew that she wanted to write and perform music by age 5. Raised in Kentucky, her roots are steeped in bluegrass and traditional country. She honed her chops playing six shows or more a day at Dollywood and releasing music independently by the time she was 14.
Pearce signed to Big Machine Records in January 2017. Before that, she released “Thing” to the iTunes Store on Nov. 10, 2016. Sirius XM added the song to its new-country outlet the Highway, after which Big Machine had a story to take to terrestrial radio programmers.
The hit version of “Thing” was remastered from its original recording, while the remainder of her 13-song debut album was recorded after she joined Big Machine.
Now that she’s seen her song rise to No. 1 and has had a minute to celebrate, Pearce, who is in the middle of a concert run on labelmate Brett Young‘s Caliville Tour, chatted with Billboard to reflect on her journey and what’s next.
“Every Little Thing” marks the first female debut single at the format since Kelsea Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and before that, Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel.” Almost 12 years … three songs. What’s your reaction as you hear that?
Oh my gosh. I think it’s everything an artist wants to hear, and when Kelsea scored a No. 1, she cracked the door open for a lot of us women.
When Kelsea’s No. 1 happened, I have to be honest, I thought about what it would be like for me to achieve that success, as well. So, as you say that, it just makes me feel so thankful. I have a lot of gratitude to so many people.
The song reached No. 1 in its 35th week on Country Airplay. It started on April 1 (no joke) at No. 58. And, 35 weeks actually is right in line with other debut No. 1s. Kelsea’s took 38 weeks and, earlier this year, Luke Combs’ “Hurricane” needed 30 weeks. Was the wait excruciating at times?
You know, the whole year has been a blur; everything changed. I am an artist that watches the charts. I honestly look every week [Laughs], so there are times when I am watching it and worrying, but I also had faith that everything would work out.
Also, I visited a lot of radio stations and talked to a lot of programmers who were supportive. The whole trip has been a major whirlwind because on those radio tours, you might not want to show it, but in reality, you’re campaigning for your song and your music.
I’ve read that you would sometimes leave meetings early on in tears. I was thinking about you when we announced that you’re No. 1, that maybe there were some tears of joy?
I have been so honest and forthcoming about my journey. I worked so hard, and my case was kind of unique, in my opinion. A lot of executives simply told me that my sound was dated and wouldn’t work, kind of telling me essentially to go away, that my music would never work in that “bro-country” world. It broke my heart at times, but I also believed strongly in the music.
I wasn’t about to go away. I had no backup plan. I wanted to have a music career since I was 5 years old. I know that might be hard to believe, but it’s true.
Why do you think that it’s such an event for a woman to break through? You’ve visited a lot of radio stations; what is your take on it? Were there only three great songs by women in the last 12 years?
After the radio tour, I thought a lot about this subject and, frankly, women were just not an option for many programmers. It may have been the bro-country thing or whatever, so programmers who were open to giving female artists a shot were somewhat scarce. Kelsea opened the door. She filled a void that was there since Taylor Swift went in a pop direction.
Then, Maren Morris came along. She’s phenomenal and is creating some very distinct music. Those women helped me by breaking through themselves. As time passed, the stars aligned perfectly for me and I was given my chance.
I talked to a program director at a major-market station, Johnny Chiang at KKBQ Houston, right about the time that you were entering the top 10 and asked about your song. He told me that your song was exploding in research and he felt strongly that it would get to No. 1. How happy does that make you?
Johnny was one of the guys who gave me a shot immediately, so of course I love him. This song was on iTunes before I signed to Big Machine, and it was starting to get traction. Then Sirius XM added it and we had success there, so we had some set-up for radio.
Clearly, I am ecstatic that, in the end, it was because of the listeners: country fans that embraced it. The song resonated with them. I consider myself primarily a songwriter first, so the goal is to write songs that might be personal, but that people can translate into their own particular life.
Was it a unanimous choice as the first single or were there any second thoughts?
I can imagine that the Big Machine promotion team was like, “Oh God, here we go, a ballad in the middle of summer,” but Scott Borchetta [chairman and CEO of Big Machine Label Group] was adamant that “Thing” was the song and simply rallied the team. I’m thankful that they were as passionate about the project as I was.
The next single is “Hide the Wine,” which is a 180-degree turn from “Every Little Thing.” Do you want to show a different side of yourself with it?
I know, it is a complete 180 and because “Thing” is a ballad and a heartbreak tale, I wanted to show my fun and playful side. My concerts are upbeat and I’m looking forward to people seeing that side of my personality.
There’s another track on the album that I’d like to see as a single, “If My Name Was Whiskey,” but I am happy with the choice of “Hide the Wine.”
Is tenacity one of your strongest qualities?
Yes. I left high school at 16 years old because of this dream of mine that I was going to chase. I was not going to let anyone stop me and no matter how much early rejections hurt at the time, all of those stories are just experiences now that I can share in my songs.
All of us endure heartbreak and I am hoping my music can inspire people and lift them up.
Seriously, I know that you had your share of rejection, being told to “move on,” but do you believe that your success happened at exactly the perfect moment? I mean, you’re only 27 and you have a lifetime of songwriting material.
I know, it happened at the right time and now I have real stories. Also, I am really proud of my bluegrass and traditional country music foundation. Even though 27 is old to some people, I have all of these experiences to share.
It’s kind of a sad statement that 27 seems old to some decision-makers.
Tell me about it. Well, guess what, women are told in this business that at 22 we’re getting too old to make it. I have had a lot of people telling me “no” and I got mad, sad, and sometimes drank too much, but it all adds up to who I am now and what I have to offer.
I also hope that my success helps other girls and women trying to make it. There are a lot of talented females out there that deserve a shot.
I’d like to think that the music world isn’t a boys club anymore, but when you hear about all of these sexual assault cases, it makes you sad. What is your take on that subject?
It’s just devastating and disgusting, but so many women have to deal with men like that. It’s so unfortunate. I’m a Kentucky girl and I handle myself, so I try to be as nice as can be, but at the same time … don’t mess with me.
You were at this year’s CMAs — when they called Jon Pardi for the new artist of the year trophy, did you think that it could be you next year?
Obviously, it’s been a dream of mine to be on that stage. Here’s the process: for many years I watched on TV from my couch. Next, I got invited to a viewing party. Then, I got invited to watch it with a group of other artists and writers like me. Finally, this year, getting the opportunity to sit there among the stars … it’s quite incredible, I must say, and I am thankful.
And, of course, I want to be up there accepting an award one day.
Is it true that you have already played the Grand Ole Opry nearly 50 times? Are you keeping track?
Yes and yes. I have played the Opry 46 times. I have two more dates scheduled, so that will be 48 soon, so I am getting close to 50. Get ready for a big celebration when it happens.
What are you doing for Christmas?
My parents live in Alabama. I’m really close with my family and I’m looking forward to a few days of relaxing with them, re-grouping and re-energizing. After that, I’m ready to get out there for the next round.