Women may still be in short supply on every single one of Billboard's country charts, but one of the genre's newest stars, Carly Pearce, refuses to be discouraged by the boys club. With her debut album, Every Little Thing, she decided to consciously channel her idols, the strong and prolific women who ruled country music in the '90s: Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Alison Krauss, and Trisha Yearwood. It looks like that idea just might work to help punch through the bro-covered glass ceiling; the album's title track made it all the way to the number-one slot on Billboard's Country Airplay Chart, making her one of only three women to accomplish that feat in the last 12 years (the other two were Carrie Underwood and Kelsea Ballerini).
So what is the secrete sauce that set Pearce apart from other female country artists? We had to know. She spoke to Refinery29 over the phone about writing songs for women, how she became besties with Kelsea Ballerini, and what it takes to be treated as an equal in the music industry.
Refinery29: You're quite a workhorse. You started out playing in a bluegrass band at only 11 and then took a job singing at Dollywood at 16. How did you find the time to get any basic kid stuff, like going to school, done?
Carly Pearce: "Yeah, I fronted a bluegrass band from the time I was 11 until I was 16 and was still in public school. I found any little bit of time that I could for school. I was always a child who loved school. When I was 16, I convinced my parents to let me quit high school and be home schooled so that I could take a job at Dollywood. I did my schooling in between my six shows a day, and it taught me how to work and what it means to really be focused. At Dollywood, I learned about having a schedule to manage a lot of different things, which I think I now use in my career."
You're also a songwriter. Around when did you start? Is there a song you're most proud of writing?
"I've always written down poetry, but I think that really started to write songs when I was about 17 and got into co-writing, after I moved to Nashville. It is important to me as an artist, in order to tell my story, and something I've been a fan of. I'm particularly proud of 'Every Little Thing' because in seeing what that song, which is so my story, did [on the charts] when I thought it was something nobody would care to hear about — that's pretty crazy."
Do you feel frustrated by how few women get played on country radio?
"I felt frustrated for a long time, but now it's so exciting because I think that you're seeing people like Kelsea [Ballerini] and Maren [Morris] and now me. We're breaking down the doors and showing country radio and the gatekeepers that women do want to hear songs by women and that women can work on the radio. I think we just have to continue to brand ourselves as all our own artists and keep making music. What 'Every Little Thing' has taught me is nobody knows what a hit song will be. Nobody knows what's going to react. All I can do is be 100% authentic and write truth and hope that it translates. This song was a very grassroots situation. I was a Highway Find on Sirius XM, which is where they promote independent artists and truly base everything off of iTunes sales. My song was in the top 10 on iTunes as a solo independent artist selling 6,000 units a week. They said that since they started that program, the only other artist to do that was Florida Georgia Line with 'Cruise,' and they were also independent when that happened. Country music fans started this for me and they're the reason I got my yes."
Now that you've found some success, is it important to you to hold the door open for the women coming up behind you?
"I was so fortunate to have Kelsea in my corner for so long taking me out on the road and helping me. When I was starting, probably in 2013, she took me out as her opening act. We met in a women's support group, kind of like a therapy group for artists. Throughout her career, she has taken me out on shows. She posts about my music. She has me over for wine and checks in. She has always been a person I could go to as a girlfriend and ask for her advice on how she handled different things. This is kind of scary; you don't really know it until you've gone through it. She has constantly given me advice when she didn't have to, because she truly was a fan of my music and believed in me. She continues to be a dear friend.
"Lucy Hale helped me as well, she hired me as her backup singer and was really kind to me. I have a woman in my band, my keyboard player. I certainly want to be an activist for women and help in any way I can to promote other artists and kind of give back and pay it forward the way that they did for me."
It's so funny that you say that, I'm in some groups like that for women in music as well. It is nice to have spaces like that, especially in a male dominated industry, where women can talk without constantly being interrupted by male voices. They have become a real resource, though, to find more women to work with.
"I bonded with Kelsea and our group because one day everyone was going around in a circle talking about what they were doing. Kelsea said she just got a record deal, someone else said they were putting out their first single, and when they got to me I started sobbing. I told them that I had a record deal, and I lost it. No one would return my calls, and I didn't know if I could do this. I asked for their help. Because I was that vulnerable, we started a real, true friendship that has lead to a sisterhood. It showed me that we don't all have it together all the time and we have to be willing to be real. That's the kind of artist I want to be, and that's the kind of friend I am. I had no idea that's the kind of friend Kelsea would become."
I found your current single, "Hide the Wine," (written by Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird, and Ashley Gorley) to be particularly revolutionary considering that so many country songs by dudes reference drinking beer. It made me feel seen, just to hear that small, feminine touch that better reflected my life and my choices in a song. Do you think we're missing that sort of thing by not having as many female voices?
"Absolutely! When I heard 'Hide the Wine,' I thought, Oh, here's my 'hey boys I do it, too' drinking song. I can write about drinking from the female perspective and be in control, not be the sad female who drinks too much and is weak. This is a strong stance; the way that guys talk about picking up girls when they're drinking? This is the female version of that, but classy. I hadn't heard anything like it on the radio, where she is the strength in a song about alcohol. I think hearing that is important, and I love that there are female writers on it."
I get the sense that the debate around authenticity in country leads to a lot of questions, especially for women, around if they had to dumb it down or change their image to appeal to a mainstream audience. It sounds like you didn't have that experience at all.
"That has been so eye-opening for me because I did think I was going to have to change a lot of things. What's interesting is, I've had people along the way [who] helped and coached me to hone my reputation, but nobody's ever tried to change me. I feel like I have carried myself in a way, and I hope it comes across that I'm not willing to — that you have to treat — I haven't run into a lot of issues as far as not feeling equal because of the people I'm around. I don't allow those thoughts to get inside my head, because I think so easily we can just assume that that's how people are going to view us. But, if we stand strong, have opinions, are intelligent, and carry ourselves in a way that is respectful but direct, then you will be viewed as an equal the majority of the time."
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