Carly Pearce Writes Her Next Chapter With Grace and Girl Power (Exclusive)

The “Closer to You” singer gets candid about the moment she knew she wanted to marry Michael Ray and her brutally honest new album.

“I’m a girl who knows what she wants when she sees it -- and I don’t get overwhelmed.” 

Mid-manicure, Carly Pearce is talking about shopping for her wedding dress. Just a few months after saying yes to boyfriend and fellow country music star Michael Ray in Tulum, Mexico, Pearce has already purchased her bridal gown (she tried on 12); set a date (she plays coy on the details, but acknowledges “we will be married by the end of the year”); tapped a wedding singer for her walk down the aisle (“Speechless” songwriter Jordan Reynolds, he’s a friend); and settled on a theme (“boho, whimsical, romantic,” with “elements of country -- but not too country. I don’t want cowboy boots at my wedding.”) 

But when it comes to her most recent Academy of Country Music Awards nomination, Pearce admits that her emotions are “hard for me to put into words.” 

“I love country music. I have dreamt of being a country music artist since I was a little girl,” she says. 

The 2019 ACMs’ New Female Artist of the Year nominee has turned that dream into reality. Her 2017 breakthrough single, “Every Little Thing,” became a gold-certified chart-topper, paving the way for her follow-ups, “If My Name Was Whiskey” and “Hide the Wine,” off her critically acclaimed debut album, Every Little Thing

In 2018, she upped the ante with opening slots on four major tours with Blake Shelton, Thomas Rhett, Rascal Flatts and Luke Bryan, the latter including massive stadium sets. 

 As Pearce looks ahead to the 2019 release of her sophomore album, she has undoubtedly earned her place in country music’s mainstream, but it was only five years ago that the bubbly blonde was sitting in a support group for young female artists in Nashville, tearfully pouring out her heart.  “I cried and said, ‘I’m Carly Pearce, and I don’t know what’s gonna happen to me.’” 

A Kentucky native (she has an outline of the state tattooed on her wrist), Pearce quit high school at 16 in favor of homeschooling and a job performing at Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Later, she took up various odd jobs in Nashville while pursuing a career in music. By early 2017, just shy of her 27th birthday, Pearce had inked a deal with Big Machine Label Group. 

Today, she has a pointed piece of advice for those female artists who’ve yet to break through: “outwork the boys.” 

“I believe that it’s true we live in a mostly male-dominated radio format, but I challenge people to look at the positive as a woman,” she says. “Just like in the '90s and early 2000s, if you were a woman on radio, you were big. Now, being engaged to a male artist, I see how hard it is [for males] to differentiate themselves from the other voices on the radio. 

“For women, there are fewer of us, which allows us to really own our own lanes and be seen for the ‘stand alone’ artists we are,” she continues. “I want to change the conversation into this: Is it hard for women on radio? Yes. Is it hard for males on radio? Yes. The entertainment business, in general, is hard. Our job as artists is to create the best music and let that speak for itself.”

A small but increasingly mighty group, many of country music’s young women have banded together in sisterhood. They not only build each other up publicly through social media and, when possible, touring together, Pearce says they also offer unwavering support behind closed doors. 

Among her earliest champions was Kelsea Ballerini. While Pearce was working as an Airbnb cleaner in 2015, Ballerini was readying her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It.” At the time, the two young women shared the same support group.

Pearce says that she wept about an uncertain future, while Ballerini opened up about her own vulnerabilities, and a powerful friendship ensued. 

“When it made sense for her, she took me out on the road when I didn’t have a record deal, a single, I didn’t have anything,” Pearce recalls. “One thing Kelsea has always told me, even in the moments that I didn't believe it, she told me, ‘Your time is coming. Just be patient and keep being you.’”

Another female country star in Pearce’s corner: Maren Morris. The “Girl” singer is currently headlining her own "Girl: The World Tour" with an all-female roster that includes Cassadee Pope and RaeLynn

“Maren just has a really big heart, and I feel like I can go to Maren and ask her really deep things and she's always going to put heart first,” Pearce says. “She's always just built me up to be a champion of my music, my story and the things that are important to me.”

Together, the trifecta -- Pearce and Morris will both turn 29 in April, Ballerini is 25 -- hope to follow in the footsteps of Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift as the next generation of strong female voices in country.

“The three of us understand that we’re the future of country music for the females,” she explains, citing shared experience -- including entering marriage in their personal lives -- as the thing that’s bonded them so tightly. Ballerini wed “Kiss Somebody” singer Morgan Evans in December of 2017, while Morris tied the knot with singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd the following March.

“Nobody really knows what we’re going through except the three of us,” she says. “I think that, hopefully, you’ll look at us in the way that you see the generations that have come before us as three girls of this generation that changed country music for girls.” 

Beyond her immediate predecessors, Pearce looks to legends Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire as inspirations in the industry. 

“They are unbelievable artists, amazing singers, amazing songwriters, entertainers, actors, businesswomen. Yet everything they go through, they have such a poised personality and grace and just this heart that remains so humble,” she gushes. “They are fierce in what they do and how they carry themselves, their businesses and their brands. I just admire that.” 

The juxtaposition of head and heart is ever present with Pearce. With her current single, “Closer to You,” she celebrates the freewheeling escapism of new love, where its hit predecessors capitalized almost exclusively on heartbreak. Pearce has said that the new song was inspired by her relationship with Ray.

Earlier this year, she sang it on stage at the historic Grand Ole Opry, where she’s been invited to play more than 60 times since her May 30, 2015 debut. Receiving a formal invitation to join the Opry remains high on Pearce’s bucket list.

“We sang at the Grand Ole Opry the other night and we were driving home, and [Ray] was like, ‘I just thought about the fact that one day our kids are gonna go to this place,’” she recalls. “‘It’s just, like, another night that Mom and Dad have to go to work.’ I thought that was really cool.” 

Though the couple has yet to write together, she hints “heavily” that his vocals will appear on her upcoming full-length --  nicknamed CP2, though Pearce hopes that label boss Scott Borchetta will allow the moniker to stick formally.  The album is a celebration of Pearce’s successes, her love of country music and its love of her -- a full-hearted offering to the audience that’s embraced her. 

“My first record, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received. I didn’t know if I was gonna be welcomed into the country music community or not, and I’ve been embraced so largely,” she says. “But I know now that I have genuine fans in the community and I know that country fans want to hear what I have to say. I feel like there’s been a little more security with myself to create the album that I really want to make. 

“I think it’s just an extension of the evolution you’ve heard from me,” she continues. “I feel more centered and more myself than I ever have before.” 

Pearce will speak about her new relationship on the album, but she’s also aiming revealing lyrics at an ex… and herself. 

“I really want to make sure people know that it’s not just about falling in love,” she says, acknowledging that her feelings for Ray at one point impacted a previous relationship. 

“I hurt someone. I learned more about myself,” she admits, citing lyrical confessions and apologies. “I want to empower women. I want to show this phase of my life, which, if you know me, I have all kinds of shades, as any woman does, to her personality.

“A lot has happened in two years,” she adds. “And it’s not all good.”

Pearce does, undoubtedly, have good things headed her way, not least of which is her new role as a wife. As the self-proclaimed “control freak” plots her upcoming nuptials (sans planner), many tears -- mostly from the groom -- are expected to be shed. 

“He’s just sweet. He cries when we talk about [the wedding],” she says with a laugh. “He’s a softie, he’s so cute. I love it.” 

Musing over her future with Ray -- a fellow Taurus, going on 31 in April -- and the intersection of the couple’s personal and professional lives, Pearce doesn’t miss a beat. 

“He’s such a huge part of this next phase of my life,” she says. “It kind of just feels like the first chapter of this book that I’m writing at the moment.” 

Follow Sophie Schillaci on Instagram