It’s an interesting case study to track the career trajectory of a prodigy musician. Often times they take a terrible spill that is impossible to recover from when they go from the cute kid who can sing well or play fast, and attempt to transition to a full-time career. In fact, that’s the most common outcome for many young performers unfortunately, while sometimes it’s the 20-something who started playing music in coffee houses in college that somehow ends up fast tracked to stardom. The outcome of prodigies is just one of many ways talent is not always a marker for success in music. In fact in the modern era, sometimes talent and originality can be an artist’s biggest burden.
Carly Pearce showed incredible promise as a performer when she dropped out of school at the age of 16 and moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to perform five nights a week at Dollywood in the bluegrass realm. With such a promising resume, perhaps she could have taken the path of a Sarah Jarosz, or a Sierra Hull, and started a spirited ascent in the bluegrass arena that would see her at least be able to launch a sustainable career. But similar to other prodigies like Hunter Hayes, Carly decided to go the mainstream route, for better or worse.
In the case of Carly and her debut album Every Little Thing, it seems to be a case of better, and worse. Of course in the mainstream, the attention for your music and the financial reward can be much greater, as she has experienced now first hand with her single “Every Little Thing” hitting the Top 5 in country from a little help from iHeartMedia’s “On The Verge Program,” yet seeming to find its own footing as well and recently being certified Gold. Yet going the mainstream route invariably means compromise with sound and approach, which is certainly evident on Every Little Thing, with the seemingly omnipresent producer “busbee” all over this project,not just in name, but in sound and influence.
The very first noise that hits you from Every Little Thing is the rhythmic huffing of what appears to be beat boxing, alerting the traditional country music fan they’ll be along for a very bumpy ride if they choose to endure. Whatever memories you may have of seeing a sweet young Carly Pearce picking and singing in Pigeon Forge are long gone with the bright lights and big production of Nashville’s sound studios. At the same time, comparing this record with its mainstream peers, you might be surprised at the substance it boasts, especially in some of the songwriting.
The reason it seems like every album coming from Nashville sounds the same is because they do. And it’s because you have a very, very small group of professional songwriters and producers who put their hands on just about every single mainstream project. Every Little Thing is definitely infected by this malady, with the previously-mentioned busbee putting his stamp on this effort and absconding with many songwriting credits (whether he truly earned them or not). Shane McAnally, Luke Laird, Ashley Gorley, and others from the Music Row cadre also make appearances in the credits. You can’t get away from these guys, regardless of the name or style of the performing artist.
The production and writing might be catchy, but it rarely catches you off guard, saddling this project with predictability in both how the music unfolds, and how the phrases fall in place. Like is expected from most any mainstream female these days, they want Carly Pearce to demonstrate attitude, which sometimes is off-putting from the fake-ish bravada, despite the “empowerment” term they may use to try and sell it.
Yet there’s is definitely something about Carly Pearce that separates her from the mainstream herd. Perhaps it’s all that time spent in Pigeon Forge, or perhaps it’s just the space Big Machine has carved out for Carly and hopes she can thrive in, but a song like “If My Name Was Whiskey” is a really solid effort, even if you have to close one eye to eliminate Shane McAnally’s name out of the songwriting credits. The initial electronic beat of “I Need A Ride Home” is pretty unbearable, but the song itself turns quite favorable, with a quality story and sentiment, and production that eventually gets out of the way.
There’s quite a few moments on Every Little Thing that you can’t help but recognize as quality, including on the title track which could become a signature effort in her career from its continued success. And despite being saddled by the ultra-modern busbee production, there’s actually a lot more bluegrass and country instrumentation on this record than you might expect from a mainstream effort, it’s just intermixed with the more modern stuff in an unfavorable way, trying to play in both realms instead of picking one, or finding an original sound all to Carly. That’s one of the frustrating parts about Every Little Thing. Simply a different production suite, and some of these selections would become killer country songs.
But even the folks that may fall for a song like “If My Name Was Whiskey” are unlikely to hear it or sit through the production. That’s why it’s such a mismatch to take a pop producer like busbeee and think he can cultivate success long term with what sounds like a more traditional artist trapped in a mainstream world. Regardless of what the hot sound is at a given moment, it’s always better to let an artist be themselves, and let everything else work around that.
Possibly the worst mark against Every Little Thing is that you leave not knowing exactly who or what Carly Pearce is. There are some good songs here, and she’s got the spirit, voice, and experience to develop into something really cool that doesn’t necessarily have to be a hardcore traditional country artist, but can bring some of those rootsy textures to quality songwriting. Or she could be like a Dierks Bentley pre his latest album Black, meaning a pragmatist who can bridge two worlds of quality mainstream and modern bluegrass. Or maybe she gets caught chasing the success of the “Every Little Thing” single and becomes the next Kelsea Ballerini.
That’s one of the reasons that with an artist like Carly Pearce, you have to speak up about what you like, and hope it’s the direction the project heads. More “If My Name Was Whiskey,” and more “Every Little Thing,” and maybe she could develop into something that might be good enough for both worlds, which is where folks like Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert have found their success. But trying to pander to both sides may result in her being unfit for either.
Every Little Thing gives you a hope for an artist who started in the very throes of the traditional country heartland. But ultimately if she’s going to rise to be something special—creatively, or even perhaps commercially in this adverse environment for female performers—her music is going to have to convey more about who she is and what makes her unique, as opposed to parts of her brilliance shining through the dingy, oily-fingered filter brought about by the touch of Music Row’s usual suspects.
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One Gun Up for some quality songs, strong voice, and moments of individuality.
One Gun Down for filler songs and cheap thrills, and misappropriated production by “busbee.”