So, if Carrie Underwood gives you her phone number and tells you to call “anytime you want to talk,” would you do it?
Up-and-coming artist Gabby Barrett did back in 2018, and she can now thank Underwood for part of the success she’s had with her current top 10-and-climbing single, “I Hope.”
“She gave me a lot of great advice,” Barrett, 19, tells PEOPLE.
At the time, Barrett had just finished third in American Idol‘s 16th season, and she was at a crucial juncture: She’d earned a career launching pad by singing cover songs on the show, but she knew she couldn’t achieve liftoff without original material. Complicating the challenge was her commitment to a months-long Idol tour. How could she do it all?
That was the question Barrett put to Underwood, perhaps country’s most prodigious multi-tasker, in the fateful phone call. Barrett had met her musical hero for an on-camera mentoring session during the Idol season.
Underwood, who of course is among Idol’s most successful winners, told Barrett there was no time to waste, and the young singer needed to do what Underwood had done: Write on the road. Take red-eye flights to Nashville for songwriting sessions. And even on those days when extra work seemed impossible, just do it.
So that’s what Barrett did, eventually propelling her to the writing session, with Jon Nite and Zachary Kale, that created “I Hope.” Walking out, Barrett had no idea they’d just written a game-changing hit.
“Jon said, ‘Oh my gosh, I think this might be the biggest song in my career,’” Barrett recalls. “And I was like, what? Then I started getting excited.”
The lightning-in-a-bottle single soon turned into Barrett’s calling card to Warner Music Nashville, now her label, and the achievements have just kept coming: among others, 2019 class member of Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing artists, Amazon Music’s best performing female country artist for 2019, 2020 class member of CMT’s Next Women of Country and 27 million views (and counting) of the “I Hope” video.
If Barrett has her way, these accomplishments will simply be early chapters in an arena-packing career. She received a tantalizing taste of that future a few weeks ago when she opened for Kane Brown at LA’s Staples Center.
“It was such a teaser,” she says, “because I got up there and I’m like, oh, I want to do a full set. It just pushes me toward that.”
Barrett has been stoking this ambition since childhood. Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, she was 9 years old when her father first noticed her strong singing voice. “‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adele had just come out,” Barrett recalls, “and I remember singing it around the house randomly.”
Her dad, a maintenance worker for Goodwill, quickly connected her to a music program at a nearby African-American church, where two years of training infused her voice with an R&B vibe. She performed solo for the first time at age 11 at a Pittsburgh sports bar, and she says she knew immediately that this would be her life.
“It was very hard-core deciding, if that makes sense,” she says. “My dad and I sat down and we talked, and we both agreed that ‘there’s no Plan B, no Plan C. This is what you’re going to do. You’re not going to college, and we’re going to make something of this.’ And so that’s what we did.”
With her dad as her manager, she was performing over 130 shows a year by the time she reached her Idol audition, at age 17.
Idol, she says, was always part of the plan: “It was the golden show growing up. I remember literally watching my parents vote for Carrie Underwood to win the finale.”
But the Idol experience also came with something that was definitely not part of the plan, a romance with fellow contestant Cade Foehner, whom she married in his home state of Texas last October.
“When I was in high school, I used to pray about whoever my future spouse was going to be. It was crazy that it came that quickly,” she says with a laugh. “And at 19, I’m already married, and it’s like whoa! But I know he’s the one that was made for me and vice versa. So it was really easy. He makes everything easy.”
So how’s married life so far?
“It’s seriously the best thing ever,” she says with a bride’s glow. “I make sure that I spend enough time with him, because he is my priority over anything.”
Like his wife, Foehner, 23, is working to forge his own music career, but as a rock singer and guitarist. Their haven when they’re not touring is their new house outside Nashville. During their down time, Barrett says, they’re “homebodies” who enjoy binge-watching Netflix. She says she’s also been learning to cook. “Trying to,” she amends. “A lot of stuff doesn’t go right. Not good at pancakes.”
Their faith, she says, is at the center of their lives. They’ve already found a church home nearby, and they use Scripture to actively guide their decision-making — a fact she alludes to in her second single, “The Good Ones,” which she co-wrote about him: “He’s a phone call to his parents / He’s a Bible by the bed.”
Barrett has since released one more co-written single, “Hall of Fame,” yet another tribute to her husband. She hastens to say that a ninth-grade boyfriend who “did me wrong” — not Foehner — provided the revenge impulse for “I Hope.”
“Thankfully, I’ve grown a lot since then,” she says. “‘The Good Ones’ and ‘Hall of Fame’ are songs that represent my present.”
Though songwriting began as a career necessity, Barrett says it’s since become a joy. “From a very young age, my main thing was always entertaining,” she says. “But now that I’ve been brought into songwriting seriously and with some talented people here, it definitely makes it more exciting. It’s fun to bounce ideas off everybody else.”
Barrett is already anticipating the release of her first album, expected later this year, which she’s determined to mostly feature songs she has co-written. “I want to make sure it’s very ‘me’ all across that board,” she says.
She’s also looking forward to sharing her music at two premier festivals, Stagecoach and Tortuga, and she’ll be supporting Brad Paisley’s upcoming tour. The growing crowds she’s singing to don’t daunt to her. She says she’s never suffered from stage fright (though she admits to a few jitters standing in front of Idol judges Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan and Katy Perry).
“From a very young age, I’ve been very blessed not to have nerves,” she says. “I want to go sing in front of people.”
Another thing that doesn’t scare her: any prospect of failure. Though she’s chosen a career that’s notoriously perilous, Barrett says she doesn’t dwell on her odds.
“I know that it can go in the snap of a finger,” she allows, “so I don’t hold on to it so strongly to where I can’t breathe if it goes away. I would love to [succeed], and that’s always the goal with everything, but it’s not something that affects my mind to where I’m like, ‘Oh, my life is going to end if it doesn’t happen.’ I have my husband and, I hope, my babies in a few years. That’s always what I’ll value the most.”
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