Carly Pearce Navigates Her Toughest Year — and Comes Out the Other Side Stronger — on ‘29’

Carly Pearce; Photo by Allister Ann
Carly Pearce; Photo by Allister Ann
Carly Pearce; Photo by Allister Ann

At the heart of Carly Pearce’s newly-released 29 — a seven-song collection that is, from start to finish, more soul-baring and unflinchingly honest than anything she’s ever released before — is its title track. “29” sums up a year of loss and struggle for the singer, and serves as a fulcrum for the rest of the songs on the project.

It’s also the only song on the album that contains the word “divorce.”

Since her highly publicized split from her husband Michael Ray in 2020, Pearce hasn’t publicly gone into detail about what ended the couple’s marriage. Still, that breakup is at the forefront of fans’ minds, and when she released “Next Girl” — 29’s lead single, and the first she sent to radio following the divorce — listeners were quick to scour the lyrics of the breakup anthem, reading between the lines for clues as to why Pearce and Ray called their relationship off just eight months after their wedding. Of course, Pearce still doesn’t exactly divulge details, but in “29,” she locks eyes with and acknowledges the elephant in the room.

“29 is the year that I got married and divorced / I held on for dear life, but I still fell off the horse,” she sings in the chorus. “From a Miss to a Mrs., then the other way around / The year I was gonna live it up / Now I’m never gonna live it down.”

Even before she wrote the song, Pearce says that she knew she wanted to write a song about her 29th year — and to have it be the central track on a project.

“I got the idea at the beginning of quarantine,” the singer recounted to Country Now and other outlets during a recent virtual media event. “I spent a lot of time in Alabama with my family, and did these weird walks around the town. Obviously, I knew I had some decisions to make long before the world knew.”

During this time of ruminating and deciding her next steps, Pearce was on the phone with a friend and realized that she needed to use music to document that time in her life. “I said, ‘I think I’m gonna have to write a song called ‘29,’ make a project around it, the year I got married and divorced.’ And she was silent, and she goes, ‘Have fun with that,’” the singer remembers.

“To me, this song is like, my Tammy Wynette moment. What I mean by that is, Tammy never shied away from heartbreak,” Pearce points out. “She was the queen of heartbreak. I feel like she was so vulnerable and honest and just sang these songs from pure, raw emotion. And for me, 29 was such a huge year of so much loss.”

Though she’s always been vocal about her love for the women of ‘90s country, with this new musical chapter, Pearce has found a special affinity for the likes of Patty Loveless, Lee Ann Womack and the many other female artists who sang about “going through difficult things, going through real things, unapologetically,” Pearce notes. That’s especially true in “Next Girl,” and Pearce gives credit to new collaborators Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who share her love of ‘90s country and were able to help foster that kind of songwriting in new ways.

“I remember Shane looking at me over Zoom [during the virtual writing session for ‘Next Girl’] and he’s like, ‘You talk about all these female anthems, why don’t you write one with this idea?’” Pearce remembers. “I didn’t even know I was capable of writing one of those, because I’ve always written things that were just so serious. And this is serious, but it feels so good.”

Carly Pearce, 29; Album Art Courtesy Big Machine Records
Carly Pearce, 29; Album Art Courtesy Big Machine Records

29 is the product of Pearce’s own growth, evolution and strength, and it also owes a debt of gratitude to the inspiration she takes from the generations of female country artists who came before her. But that’s not all: Pearce also found empowerment and support from her female friends and musical contemporaries, like Kelsea Ballerini.

“She was one of the first people that I told that all this was gonna happen,” Pearce explains, referring to her split from Ray. “I was so sad, and I was so embarrassed. She said, ‘But what if you gave voice to so many people who think they should be embarrassed and so shameful?’…She was like, ‘Honestly, I’m inspired by you.’ I remember leaving that with a different perspective of what the opportunity was, instead of looking at it as something that should be shameful.”

Then there were artists like Taylor Swift, who Pearce says she looked up to to help her establish a road map of how to be both respectful in the wake of her divorce and honest about her emotions in her music.

“I’m not relating myself to Taylor Swift, but I do feel we have a common thread through this…when she puts out music, fans read between the lines. They know that’s a story. She’s writing such authentic lyrics of what she goes through in her life,” the singer explains. “I feel like if I wouldn’t have done that, people wouldn’t have believed me. Because I’ve always done that.”

With the help of female friends and idols alike, as well as her own strong moral compass, Pearce has charted a steady course through uncertain territory, navigating the year that she “got married and divorced.” When asked if she’s got any hesitation about how honest 29 is, she doesn’t flinch.

“I don’t know how to make music that’s not authentic to me,” Pearce says. “…I’ve always just bled my heart out on a page. I’m just being honest because that’s how I was raised.”

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