Americans like a good comeback story, and the Grand Ole Opry provided one last night with the induction of Carly Pearce as its newest member.
The Kentucky-bred singer-songwriter experienced an emotionally strenuous year with the death of her producer, busbee, and a divorce when she was 29; spent her 30th year healing in pandemic-forced recovery; and now lands with ultimate resiliency at age 31 in a spot she has long aspired to: nestled alphabetically between Dolly Parton and Stu Phillips on the Opry membership roster.
“We all go through pain, and we wonder why,” reasons Pearce. “So many people say, ‘God, why are you letting this happen to me?’ And I think that for me, what I have seen is my pain is now being used for purpose in my own life, but also in the lives of the people who listen to my music. And so this just feels like a celebration of that to me.”
It’s similarly a recognition of persistence. Pearce has performed more than 80 times on the venerable Opry stage since her debut in 2015, appearing more regularly than some of its longtime members. She had set her eyes on the Opry when she realized in her earliest years that she wanted to sing country music for her life’s work. So once she got the opportunity to perform behind the white-and-red mic stand, she made a point of proving to a succession of Opry GMs — Pete Fisher, Sally Williams and now Dan Rogers — that she belonged in the circle.
“I think that a lot of people maybe play it and maybe some become members, but they don’t really keep it as a part of who they are,” she says. “It was very important to me to establish a relationship with the Opry that made them understand I not only just wanted to play the stage, but I wanted to be a face of the Opry in the way that I feel like Carrie Underwood did and has.”
Credentials, of course, are required, and Pearce has earned a distinct niche in the current country landscape with a Tammy Wynette-like heartbreak vocal quality that’s admirably elastic, branding her across a range of singles that includes the twangy “Hide the Wine,” the sleekly tuneful “Closer to You” and her train-beat current release “Next Girl.”
And Pearce isn’t just the voice in her career — she’s a guiding hand, too, establishing the Dobro as a key presence in her sound and writing a good chunk of her material, including debut single “Every Little Thing” and her CMA Award-winning Lee Brice collaboration “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”
Her skill with classic-country wordplay is on display in the album cut “Liability,” from her current EP 29. In addition to its acerbic portrait of a partner as a romantic liability, she lashes out with sarcastic praise at his “lie ability.” The song is flexible enough to fit some business relationships and politics too.
“I actually was really proud of myself for bringing that idea into the room and watching Shane McAnally, whom I admire so much as a songwriter, literally jump up on the couch because he was so excited,” says Pearce. “I have ties to that song that are true to me, but I think other people are applying it in all different ways, and that’s what’s kind of fun to watch even now as I play it out.”
The 29 project was a darkly personal one that fell almost too easily into textbook life patterns. Astrologists see people move through time in seven-year cycles, and the beginning of that fifth cycle, the 29-year Saturn return, is often brutal: The real world slams into the individual’s belief system as they move from youth into increased adult responsibility. Pearce’s fairytale wedding in her 29th year to fellow country singer Michael Ray ended after a quick eight months, and she addressed that among the topics in the EP, managing to deftly promote it while rarely, if ever, mentioning his name.
She now plans to expand on the EP with 29:Written in Stone, coming Sept. 17. The new Big Machine set includes the original seven songs, plus eight more, including “Dear Miss Loretta,” her missive about Loretta Lynn, featuring Patty Loveless.
Taking a year off from performing during the pandemic gave her time to regroup personally, and she received a sign from a medium this spring where her rebound was headed.
“He had no idea what I did for a living,” says Pearce of the psychic. “He had never met me, never seen me, only knew my first name. And he said, ‘I see you singing in a barn, and it’s not just you singing. Something big is going to happen at the barn.’ And he’s like, ‘Do you sing?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s a stage on the barn. And this is like a really big deal.’ And I remember I hung up with him, and I just felt like it was the Opry. The fact that this is happening to me on the back end of the hardest season of my life ever makes me just feel like God’s grace has been over me the whole time.”
While putting her broken heart into 29 helped Pearce turn a page on her life, the title cut may have also provided a transition into her next musical chapter. Jenee Fleenor’s twin fiddles gave it a George Strait/Ray Price classic-country texture and it sounds like Fleenor’s role carries on in the expanded version.
“Let’s just say I put Jenee to work,” she says.
Meanwhile, wherever she’s headed musically, Pearce knows that she has her Opry membership to lean on. It symbolizes her arrival as a professional artist, reinforces the possibilities that accompany persistence and reminds her of the beauty in second chances. Her willingness to sing about life’s circumstances to concert crowds that know the backstory is the stuff that country careers have existed upon since the genre’s beginning.
“I literally feel like a motivational speaker at my shows, just seeing these people crying in the audience,” she says. “I’m back out on the road playing this music, and I’m seeing these people affected by it. I know they’re in pain, and I just look them straight in the face, and I’m like, ‘Hold on.’”