Her friend was skeptical. “She said, ‘You’re going to do what?!’ ” Pearce recalled in a recent interview from Nashville. “I just remember her being like, ‘I don’t know if you should do that.’”
It was a fair reaction — it can be risky to share your personal life if you’re in the public eye. But Pearce, one of Nashville’s breakout stars over the past several years, has always written candid songs. She didn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“I didn’t really know how to do anything except be honest,” Pearce said. “So I made the decision to say: ‘I unapologetically went through this and there’s no way to go around it. And I’m just going to share it with you.’ ”
Pearce, who will perform Sunday at the Academy of Country Music Awards and is nominated for multiple trophies, released “29” in February to critical acclaim. The collection of seven powerfully written songs includes her single “Next Girl,” currently in the Top 25 on country radio, along with ’90s country-inspired tracks that chronicle the spectrum of heartbreak.
The music has also made an impact on listeners in a way she never expected. She has received hundreds of messages from strangers who told her things such as “You made me feel like it’s okay to be in my 20s and go through a divorce” or “You gave me the strength to file for divorce.”
“I carried so much shame in the beginning, and I feel like now, through telling my story, I’ve healed and I’m also helping other people to heal,” Pearce said. “My purpose has just grown so much.”
In that sense, “29” serves as a unique type of revenge album — not in the “burn it all down” kind of way, but rather showing that living well is the best revenge.
“I certainly was not trying to be vengeful. But I would be lying to you if I didn’t go, ‘Damn! Alright.’ You know, hold my head a little higher,” she laughed. The album, she added, “came out of a situation that for me was completely soul-crushing. And we have to make decisions in life in hard times: Are we going to let this define us or refine us? And I think this is my refinement moment.”
Although Pearce is careful to say that not all the songs mirror her real-life situation, listeners will inevitably read between the lines. Her crystal-clear vocals accompany introspective songs that dive into what went wrong in a relationship (“Should’ve Known Better”), deliver candid insights about the difficulty of moving on (“Messy,” “Day One”) and call out someone with an uncanny ability to lie (the aptly titled “Liability”).
The project culminates with the standout title track “29,” co-written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne (both of whom produced the record with Jimmy Robbins), about accepting that the life you’re “supposed” to have and the one that you actually do are often very different. “29 is the year that I got married and divorced / I held on for dear life, but I still fell off the horse,” Pearce sings in the chorus. “From a Miss to a Mrs. / then the other way around. The year I was gonna live it up — now I’m never gonna live it down.”
She also comes out swinging on “Next Girl,” also written with McAnally and Osbourne, an upbeat yet searing tune that warns women about falling for a man’s smooth pickup lines: “Hey next girl, you don’t know me — I’m just the one he says went crazy … He’ll charm your mama with that smile, hide the red flags for a little while.”
Fans immediately noticed that one lyric (“He knows how to say all the right things, knows how to get you out of that dress”) was similar to a lyric in her ex-husband’s song “Think a Little Less” (“Get you out of this bar, get you out of that dress”). Pearce admitted it’s “surreal” to have people so invested in her personal life that they’ll comb through lyrics, but pointed out that she has always been open about her relationships, such as during her acceptance speech at the 2018 CMT Music Awards, when she thanked her ex-boyfriend for breaking her heart.
“It’s not like I’m doing anything different. But I think for the first time, fans have a face to be able to put to my songs,” she said. “The cool part about it is, I know what’s the truth and what’s not. And that’s for me as a songwriter and my co-writers to know.”
A Kentucky native, Pearce got her first big break as a singer in high school, when she landed a gig as a performer at Dollywood. She moved to Nashville several years later and connected with pop producer Busbee in 2015. Along with Emily Shackleton, they wrote the heartbreak ballad “Every Little Thing.” When the song blew up on SiriusXM’s country station “The Highway” and started selling thousands of copies a week, Big Machine Label Group founder Scott Borchetta offered Pearce a record deal. The ballad eventually went No. 1.
Pearce just celebrated her fourth anniversary with Big Machine and her second No. 1 hit. Her wistful duet with Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” hit the top of the country charts last summer. The two will perform it at the ACM Awards; producers announced Thursday that it already won musical event of the year. (It’s also nominated for single of the year.)
It was also the last song that Busbee, 43, produced before he died of brain cancer in September 2019. The music community was stunned by his death, and Pearce was devastated. As her good friend and closest collaborator, she couldn’t envision her music without him. Her new ballad “Show Me Around,” also featured on “29,” imagines a day when they’ll see each other again.
“It’s taken on its own little life of helping other people with dealing with loss, because all of us have dealt with so much loss, especially in this crazy year,” Pearce said. “I learned so much from him that I keep alive as I move forward.”
Right now, Pearce is trying to stay focused on the silver linings of a difficult year, such as her ACM nomination for female vocalist of the year. Just being included in that highly competitive category “makes me feel like I’ve already won, because it’s really hard to get in there,” she said. She’s also emotional about the mere idea of possibly resuming tours in the near future. As much as her music may have helped her fans, the feeling was mutual.
“They held my head up this entire year of not giving up on myself, of encouraging me as I got through this. I shared so much with them when I was struggling and when I was having a hard time, and when I was okay,” she said. “They just became so much closer to me, and I can’t wait to see their faces.”