29: Written in Stone is the best mainstream country album of the year and feels like the moment where Carly Pearce has come into her own as an artist.
To say that a record is the best mainstream country album of its year is a peculiar form of genre gatekeeping: it implies that the major labels on Music Row are fundamentally incapable of releasing work that honors country’s conventions while still pushing the genre ever forward. It has also resulted in a decade-plus period in which exactly four artists have rotated the honor of the consensus choice of having created Nashville’s One Great Album. But 2021 has broken form; Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton are off-cycle for new releases, Kacey Musgraves released a pop album that can most politely be characterized as “divisive,” and Eric Church put out a bloated double-album that no one liked all that much. The beneficiary of this disruption is Carly Pearce, whose 29: Written in Stone has earned raves for the vulnerability of Pearce’s songwriting and its skillful balance between traditional flourishes and the cadences of contemporary pop-country.
Pearce previewed the set as a 7-song EP back in February; the great surprise of Written in Stone is how much stronger it is in its expanded version, since the new songs here lean into the thematic heft of the album’s status as Pearce’s “divorce record.” Whether or not the songs are purely autobiographical is incidental because the specificity of the details on the songs leaves the most precise of cuts: “He helped me a change a tire in the Citgo parking lot,” makes for a hell of an opening line — one delivered by the great Ashley McBryde on “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” — while there’s a real weight to the reflection on the title track when Pearce sings, “twenty-nine / is the year I got married and divorced… / From a Ms. to a Mrs., then the other way around.” “What He Didn’t Do” boasts the strongest hook that Pearce has yet committed to record, making for a withering kiss-off that accounts for every last failing that doomed a relationship, and “Your Drinkin’, My Problem” nearly matches that standout track for its catchiness and its savage dressing-down of an ex.
Still, the album’s centerpiece is “Dear Mrs. Loretta,” on which Pearce stakes her claim as the heiress apparent to Kentucky’s legacy of country music, as she coaxes Patty Loveless out of retirement for a duet that pays tribute to Loretta Lynn. Singing directly to Lynn herself, Pearce sighs, “Your songs were all fun / Til I lived them myself,” before belting out, “I’m not a coal miner’s daughter / But my grandmother was,” as Loveless wails a high harmony. It’s a glorious moment in isolation, but, in the context of an album steeped in personal heartbreak and country tradition, it feels like the song on which Pearce truly comes into her own as an artist. To say 29: Written in Stone is the best mainstream country album of 2021 isn’t to damn the album with faint praise; instead, it highlights how an on-the-cusp-of-the-A-list-er can still set an awfully high bar for what modern country music can be.
Published as part of Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 2.