The genius and beauty of country music has always been its simplicity. This is not rocket science. Earnest people putting real world emotions and experiences to rhythm and rhyme is what has allowed country music to thrive and remain eternally relevant for nearly a century. Confusing that mission, and conflating it with other concerns is where it loses its soul, and flounders, no matter how well it might be received by the masses. It ceases to be country, and is only just music.
We’ve known for a while now that Carly Pearce has the heart, and the history to become something special in the country mainstream. She started playing bluegrass at 11, and dropped out of school at 16 after trying out for the “Country Crossroads” show at Dollywood and winning the job. Pearce then moved to Pigeon Forge where she performed bluegrass music six times a day, five days a week.
But up until this point, that’s been nothing more than a cool backstory, and was poorly reflected in the country pop she’s performed for the most part, aside from a few outlying moments that only frustrated you even more because it gave you glimmers of what you knew she was fully capable of. Now with her new 7-song album 29, the Carly Pierce we’ve been impatiently waiting to reveal herself finally emerges.
Directly inspired and written to chronicle her divorce from fellow major label country performer Michael Ray, 29 is a classic breakup record in the sense that it captures all of the raw emotion of heavy moments in words that do justice to such life-defining matters. Few subjects are more country than divorce, because it’s real. And in country, you don’t sugar coat it, or sweep it under the rug. You speak about it openly. You prove your strength by being candid, and being willing to show your vulnerability.
Let’s talk straight: this is not the album Tammy Wynette would have turned in. The “Big Machine Records” stamp on it ensures it’s more pragmatic than purist. But that takes nothing away from the writing turned in by Pearce with the assistance from some others, or the overall more rootsy and twangy sound compared to its major label peers. Even if it’s short enough to officially label as an EP, Carly Pearce’s 29 will still provide the notch in the door jamb for all other 2021 major label projects to be measured against.
Pulling no punches, and bypassing all allusion and insinuation, these are Carly Pearce’s thoughts and experiences put to song. “Next Girl,” “Should’ve Known Better,” and “Messy” lay it all right out there. The title song “29” (Carly’s age at the time she wrote it) makes you recall how daunting that age can really be. As young as it may seem in hindsight, it’s the first time you truly feel old, especially when things aren’t going exactly as you planned.
“Liability” works in that classic country double-entendre way that not enough country songs do these days, even if it feels slightly forced. Hit songwriters Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne do significant co-writing work on this record with Carly, while they both also co-produce the effort. The fifth track “Show Me Around” was inspired by the death of Carly’s previous producer “busbee.”
Not to speak ill of busbee, but he was one of the principle individuals who pushed the music of Pearce in a significantly more pop direction, as he did with Maren Morris and others. Having also worked with more country-sounding outfits like Midland along with pop acts, the pairing of Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne are more well-equipped to make the Carly Pearce sound come to life in a way that’s more respectful to her roots, and her want.
This isn’t a breakup record with all the attitudinal and revenge-filled posturing that you so often get in the mainstream that works like a female version of Bro-Country. There’s a reflective thoughtfulness that’s more mature and meaningful here, even if it still has a mainstream feel. Others in the independent ranks of country music will make better records in 2021 than 29. But few if any that find their home on major labels and country radio will.