Now working to heal her broken heart, the new CMA winner refuses to call the brief marriage a mistake: "My love was real. I will stand by that forever"

By Nancy Kruh
November 11, 2020 10:30 AM
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Carly Pearce has put away the wedding dress, the wedding photos, the five-carat engagement ring that once made her feel like she was "wearing his heart on my hand" — everything that reminds her of the marriage to fellow artist Michael Ray that began on a rainy fall day in 2019 and ended abruptly just eight months later when she filed for divorce

"I'll keep it until I feel like I shouldn't, and that'll be it," the 30-year-old artist tells PEOPLE exclusively.

Someday, she knows, she'll bring herself to tend to these sad reminders of what she thought would last a lifetime. For the moment, though, she's more focused on what to do today to help her heal from what she calls "single-handedly the hardest year of my life."

It also has been, blessedly, perhaps the best year of her career. As of Wednesday morning, she's already taken home one of four CMA awards she's been nominated for, including three powered by the strength of her recent No. 1 smash hit, "I Hope You're Happy Now," the soulful duet with Lee Brice that she co-wrote. She's earned a coveted spot on the show, performing the song with Lady A's Charles Kelley, a last-minute replacement after Brice tested positive for COVID-19.

The accolades, Pearce says, couldn't have come at a better time. "I feel like country music keeps hugging me when it knows I need it," she says, "and that's what I feel this year. I just feel this huge hug of like, 'We've got you,' and it's awesome."

Nominated for new artist of the year for a second year in a row, Pearce showed up at the Nashville awards show last year on Ray's arm. This year she'll be accompanied by the best friend who served as her maid of honor. "She stood by me when I got married," says Pearce, "and she was there when I fell apart."

Silent about her decision until now, Pearce is emotional as she opens up for the first time in a lengthy interview about how she and Ray "very quickly realized we were not meant to be." (Ray is now dating Travis Tritt's 22-year-old daughter Tyler.) And Pearce won't call the brief marriage a mistake: "I believe we don't go through things that we're not supposed to go through. My love was real. I will stand by that forever."

She says she also discovered love wasn't enough to save the marriage. "I did everything that I knew how to do," she says, adding, "It takes two people to work on something." Pearce doesn't go into specific details of the couple's differences, but she points to a fundamental tenet of marriage: "When you love somebody, you trust them."

Some have speculated the couple's incompatibility emerged during their weeks together in quarantine, but Pearce sets the record straight: The marriage, she says, was already on rocky ground this spring before their confinement, and its only significance in the divorce was the fact it did "give me time to really deal with it."

"This was not a flippant decision," Pearce declares. "This was something that I really took time to make sure I was doing the right thing. It was very clear that this was not the marriage that I wanted."

Carly Pearce and Michael Ray at the 2019 CMA Awards
| Credit: John Shearer/Getty

The pandemic also ended up robbing Pearce of her usual emotional escape: live performance. "For me, my vice isn't alcohol or drugs or anything like that," she says. "It's the stage — it's my artistry, my love of music — and I haven't had the stage. So, this has been the first situation where I've really done the work, to work through the pain, and I think I'm better for it." 

The pain, Pearce assures, has been as real as the love. "I truly thought I was gonna die," she says. "There were moments I seriously did not know if I could breathe. It was awful. It is awful. But I think that what's been awesome has been trusting myself and trusting what I have always known, which is God won't take me through something that he won't bring me out of or bring good from." 

Day by day, Pearce says, she has been taking steps to mend her heart. Embarrassed by the split, she was relieved when family and friends rushed to offer support. She's also sought counseling for the first time in her life: "I never really knew the power of therapy before all of this." This summer, she adopted a shih tzu puppy, June (named after country legend June Carter), that has been a constant source of comfort. "I'll always kind of look at her as a little bit of a lifesaver," says Pearce.

Carly Peace and June
| Credit: Carly Pearce/ Instagram

She's taken a deeper dive into her Christian faith, finding insights in her readings — as well as inspiration to make a new, and indelible, personal statement: a tattoo on her right forearm of a wildflower bouquet.

"Wildflowers are the first flowers that sprout after a long winter," she explains. "To me, they symbolize that this didn't kill me. I certainly have a stronger sense of knowing God has affirmed me. No one would ever believe the ways he's affirmed me that I'm walking in the right direction."

Carly Pearce's wildflower tattoo
| Credit: Carly Pearce/Instagram

Still, she knows she's nowhere near the end of her journey. "I'm sure that anybody who's ever gone through this goes through different emotions," she says. "I've been sad. I've been angry. I've been relieved. I try to not be mad at myself. I try to not be mad at him. I think that holding grudges or staying mad only hurts you, and it's just not healthy. So, I try to remind myself of that. And sure, I have days where I'm so mad at myself for just not knowing this was how it was all going to end up for me. My gosh, if I could go back, sure. But it's a part of my story, and that's okay."

She remeasures that last word, then says it again with a sadder weight: "It's just ... okay."

Pearce has already begun to process this chapter through new music, and indeed, some listeners have been trying to read between the lines of her latest single, "Next Girl," a sassy warning from the viewpoint of a woman who's been jilted by a serial charmer. But Pearce is adamant that those lyrics weren't intended to be specific to her current situation.

"I have encountered this guy quite a few times in my life," she says, reminding, "I left this relationship. I certainly don't want to relive it every night in a song."

A more telling lyric, perhaps, appears in the snippet of a song that she recently previewed on Instagram: "I only saw what I wanted to / 'cause when you fall, you fall heart first."

Those lyrics seem to echo Pearce's own reflections on what her former self could have done differently. "I don't think anything would have stopped me," she says. "I don't think there's anything that I could go back and tell her that would've made a difference."

Pearce deliberately draws that dividing line between the woman who married Ray and the woman she is today. She says she's stronger now — more than she ever thought she could be — and she's much more in touch with her feelings. "I definitely am somebody who's been like, 'No, I'm good, I'm good, I'm good, I'm good,'" she says, "and this broke it."

But some things, she says, won't ever change: "I'll never be somebody that doesn't go all in on something and fight for it. I have the same character that I've had the whole time. I just maybe am a little wiser. Got a little more grit."

Carly Pearce
| Credit: Allister Ann

Yes, she says, she still believes in love, but she's not ready to date again. "I really want to heal my heart," she says, "and focus on music and do the work."

And, yes, she still holds out hope that someday she will find a love that lasts — something, she says, she couldn't have said even three months ago.

"I am hopeful," she says. "I want somebody. I desire marriage. I desire companionship. I desire a family. I desire all of those things. I think that having divorce as a part of your story is hard. It's a hard reality. It's been hard for me to accept that and not be embarrassed or feel like I'm defined by that. But in reality, I know that I'm not. I've come to a place of just accepting that everybody has a journey, and this is mine — and the right person will be able to love me through that."