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One Good Thing: A new classic of country heartbreak

Carly Pearce’s 29: Written in Stone turns a tumultuous year of her life into a near-perfect divorce album.

Carly Pearce performs at CMS Fest 2022 in June.
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Country music carries within it a promise of a kind of idyllic traditionalism, even in its most progressive forms. The genre implicitly promises that there is a place where you will find the one person who completes you and build a quiet life out in the middle of nowhere together. Yet in reality, life keeps getting in the way. The best country lives in the tension between those ideas, between the life you’re supposed to want and the world that gives you so many other options, then yanks some cruelly away.

And sometimes, you just need to scream and cry and pound your fists and maybe fire a shotgun into the air. Enter the “Hey, fuck you, buddy!!” song.

Typically (though not exclusively) recorded by women, the “Hey, fuck you, buddy!!” song involves what happens when some jerk breaks your heart, then runs off to be with someone else. As you watch their truck recede into the distance, you scream, “Hey, fuck you, buddy!!” But that’s about all you can do.

Naturally, many of these songs center on divorce. From sad and lonesome classics like Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and Dolly Parton’s “Starting Over Again” to more fiery tracks like Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” and Kacey Musgraves’s “Breadwinner,” a woman’s definition of herself after she ceases to be a wife is an evergreen theme in country (and popular art in general).

And now you can (and should!) add Carly Pearce’s 2021 album 29: Written in Stone to the list. It’s a whole album of kiss-off anthems, inspired by a marriage that lasted less than a year, and it marks a huge leap forward for one of country music’s most exciting young stars. Hopefully, it will help her cross over to audiences who don’t normally listen to country. Those audiences might well love Pearce’s dry, acerbic take on complete and utter heartbreak.

Pearce married fellow country singer Michael Ray in October 2019, but their marriage was over less than a year later, with Pearce officially filing for divorce in June 2020. The title of 29: Written in Stone, then, refers to the age Pearce was when her marriage both began and dissolved. But it also speaks to her anxiety around her impending 30s and her attempts to find a way forward in music after the death of her longtime producer Busbee in 2019, just weeks before her wedding.

It’s an album that looks backward — to Pearce’s parents’ marriage and to her country music foremothers like Loretta Lynn — and forward, to what Pearce might have learned from her divorce that she will bring to future relationships. It’s appropriately angry in places, appropriately grief-stricken in others, and appropriately relieved in still others. It’s an album written by someone who didn’t expect her relationship to end so quickly, but who’s also willing to admit it’s probably good it ended before she and her ex could have their lives further enmeshed.

The opening track, “Diamondback,” nicely sets up what listeners can expect from the album. Its title evokes the deadly rattlesnake, but the song splits that word into two, as Pearce assures her ex that he can have whatever he wants, but he’s “never gonna get that diamond back.” That song and others on the album have superb “getting drunk at a dive bar with your friends after a bad breakup” energy.

Pearce balances them with plaintive ballads, like the album’s second track, “What He Didn’t Do.” In that song, she seemingly explains to the imagined friends assembled at the dive bar why her marriage ended, not by talking about what her ex did to break her heart but all of the little things he didn’t do that left her feeling let down. And yet even as she demurs when asked to give all the gory details, she assures us, “we both know I could run him out of this town. That’s just dirty laundry; I don’t need to wear the truth.”

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Pearce and Musgraves. Both regularly toss off lyrics filled with evocative imagery, emotional complexity, and winking wordplay. Pearce, for instance, uses the title of her hit “Next Girl” to mean both her ex’s next fling and to warn that new fling, “I know what happens next, girl.”

29: Written in Stone has made the comparisons even more pointed, as Musgraves also released an album about her divorce last year, just one week before Pearce’s album dropped. Musgraves’s star-crossed arrived with a fleet of expectations it couldn’t hope to live up to, and its hard turn away from a pure country song disgruntled many in Musgraves’s fanbase. (I liked the album a lot, actually.)

In short, this album knows that any relationship that ends deserves at least a couple “Hey, fuck you, buddy!!” songs. 29: Written in Stone has more than its fair share for all your friends to scream along to at the bar, but it’s also got a hefty helping of heartbroken wisdom for when last call has arrived and you realize your lover’s not coming back.

29: Written in Stone might speak to those who want a more purely country take on what it means to have the thing you thought would last your whole life disintegrate. Like Musgraves, Pearce is willing to take blame for the ways she let her marriage down, but where Musgraves could overindulge in those ideas, seeming like she had slipped into self-loathing, Pearce is only too happy to throw dirt on the grave her ex dug himself.

29: Written in Stone is available on all major music streaming platforms. Physical editions are also available on CD and vinyl.