Picture that you’re standing at the barrier to a stage in an intimate, darkened theatre, watching crew set up amps and mics. You’ve heard a lot of social media chatter about Kentucky-born, Tennessee-based Carly Pearce – the girl who has been performing since the age of 11, and who left school at 16 to perform at Dollywood – and you’re looking forward to her upcoming set.
It’s just after lunch on this Saturday afternoon, and the unexpected sunshine on your arrival to the festival convinced you to start a little daytime drinking. You’re halfway through your weekend pilgrimage of live country music indulgence, and the atmosphere is welcoming and inspiring, as always.
A woman to your right takes out a notepad and starts jotting down bullet points. You lean in for a closer look and she smiles over at you.
‘So, so excited to finally hear Carly play – she’s worked hard for her big break. And this is it. She’s apprenticed for eight years in Nashville, including an unsuccessful signing a few years back. Then last year she featured as a vocalist on the Josh Abbot Band hit, Wasn’t That Drunk. Now she’s played at The Bluebird and The Opry, and her songs involve the cross-genre legend that is busbee. AND she co-writes with the talents of Emily Shackelton, Hilary Lindsey, Natalie Hemby and Shane McAnally.’ At my bemused expression she explains, ‘I’m reviewing her gig: trust me, they’ve all written number ones – for Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and they have a ton of awards!’
‘She’s worth the queue wait, then?’ you laugh, glancing around at the full, thousand-capacity, room.
‘Absolutely.’ The reviewer enthusiastically confirms.
Suddenly, the lights go down and the applause comes up as Carly takes to the stage with a couple of guitarists. They launch into Hide the Wine, a purposeful song that makes you want to nod along to the story of probably everyone in the venue; ‘you get burned, don’t learn, don’t care, just reach for another match and gasoline … I just don’t trust myself with you/I better hide the wine’. The Lambert-esque song ends with resounding applause and Carly thanks the audience; we’re listening to songs from her debut album, out in October 2017. The storied tempo continues with Careless, ‘you were careless with my heart/Said forever then you let it fall apart…when you say you want me, you miss me tonight/Baby I could care less’. Carly moves to a keyboard, and you share a grin with the reviewer. The promotion of this talented artist is wholly justified.
Carly introduces the title song from her debut album, Every Little Thing, which made the top ten in the country charts. A whoop of support from the crowd, then the intro begins and your knees weaken at the too-often-underused collaboration of keys and steel guitar. You drift away to the three minute heartbreak song. By the effortless vocal rollercoaster on the chorus, ‘the high, the hurt, the shine, the sting/of every little thing’ you know that hook will keep in your head the whole weekend, and you really don’t mind at all.
Carly moves forward to centre stage, and Everybody Gonna Talk gets the crowd arm-waving and chanting on the whoas; ‘You got the bad, I got the honey/Got the whole town putting money on you/Breaking my heart and running, whoa’. From the noise of the room, you’re not the only one who approves of the song’s ethos of do-what-you-please.
The set slows again, and Carly returns to the keyboard to play If My Name Was Whiskey, a mature ballad reminiscent of years of female country singers waiting on a man who won’t return home; ‘maybe right now you’d miss me/You never would’ve quit me/If my name was whiskey’.
She thanks the audience once more and waves as she walks off stage, no doubt to a ton of interviews and in-demand radio sessions.
You buy the album on the strength of this half hour performance, and listen while crew sets up for the next artist. It’s so good you almost can’t wait to hear what the second album brings.
Carly may sing about heart breaks – a country staple since First Lady of Country Tammy Wynette days – but she performs them beautifully, and has the Parton/Musgraves/Lambert sass to have a good cry, a good drink and a damn good hit record over the experience. And sass of the empowering female role model is the reason you got into country music, thirty years ago, thanks to listening to Dolly, Reba and Lorrie pour their hearts out and then move on. Each generation brings its own wave of empowering female singers to reflect their listener’s stories and – along with Logan Brill, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini – Carly will stride with us into the third decade of the twenty-first century.
You finish your drink and head to the bar, nodding your head and swaying your hips to the music, as you move through the crowd.
Now … imagine that you’re walking around Country to Country festival next year, towards a Carly Pearce performance?