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Music City

Even after finishing second runner-up on American Idol when most expected her to win the season, then-17-year-old Gabby Barrett wasn’t ready to believe that her dream was going to fall to pieces. She agreed to do the annual post-season American Idol Tour, but she wasn’t stopping there.

“Deals didn’t really come at first, so I used it as fuel for the fire,” says the girl from Munhall, Pa. “My dad said to use anything negative as a positive, to let it fire you up. So when it didn’t just happen, it was, ‘Nobody’s reaching out? OK, we’ll figure it out.’”

After counsel from Carrie Underwood, who knew all too well the intensity of an Idol Tour and trying to make a record at the same time, Barrett started flying into Nashville for 24- and 48-hour spurts to work on writing. “She was everything you could hope for: I first met Carrie on Idol when we sang together. She gave me her number and was very real with me about stuff. She told me, ‘Anything negative anyone says about you, just don’t believe it. They’re going to compare you, and you should just ignore what they say.’ She made me believe I could do this.”

Red Light Managment’s Tom Lord was impressed with her tenacity. Though there were no offers, he began reaching out to writers, producers and label people on her behalf.

Eight years ago, when she was 11, her father took her to sing with Homestead, Pa.’s Lamb of God gospel choir, where the skinny little white girl stood out among the seasoned African-American vocalists. It was then that Barrett developed her fearless way of going after a melody. “By nature, I’m very determined. I went in there with my head held high, and I sang. That church really shaped my voice and my singing. I was a child and had a childlike imagination, so I was super-excited to be around all these ladies who could sing so well. And they were super-accepting and encouraging.”

So was Ross Copperman, the 2016  Academy of Country Music Songwriter of the Year and 2017 BMI Songwriter of the Year. Though in-demand as a producer and songwriter for Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley and Brett Eldredge, the Virginia-born former solo artist recognized the conviction in Barrett voice and told Lord, “Whatever you need.”

For Barrett, who’d played 136 shows in 2017 alone and been called “a voice you must hear” by The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, it was only a matter of finding the right vehicle. Though she’s now engaged to Cade Foehner, another former Idol contestant, she drew on a far less gratifying previous relationship for “I Hope,” a scathing turnaround power ballad that evokes Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” Singing to her cheating former boyfriend, the girl in the song wishes him all the things she thought she’d had with him. But then she expresses the hope that her ex’s new lover treats him as cruelly as he treated her—and just like that, the letting go goes right for the throat. With that one song, Barrett was on fire.

Self-released, “I Hope” hit #1 on Radio Disney Country in 11 weeks, while the track exploded on SiriusXM’s The Highway, jumping from Top 20 to Top 3 in four weeks. But even more impressively, the girl with nearly a half-million Twitter followers has surpassed 30 million streams; over 2 million in one week alone.

Suddenly, the girl nobody knew what to do with had offers coming in from all quarters. It’s a lot like going from playing at the Giant Eagle “where there were a lot more fruits and vegetables in the produce section than people in their little café” to Idol, with its international reach and instant response. Barrett returned to Idol to announce that she’d signed with Warner Nashville.

“I’m one of eight children,” says the emerging songwriter. “There was a lot of trial and error on my dad’s part, but when he saw me singing [Adele’s] ‘Rolling in the Deep’ by the Christmas tree when I was eight, we agreed that music was Plan A, B, C and D.

“I want to have my own fashion line and my own makeup line. I want to keep playing shows and have a Dolly Parton kind of career that goes on as long as it possibly can.”

Not that she’d expected “I Hope” to be the rocket launcher she was looking for. “It blows my mind how much this song can help people get strength,” Barrett marvels. “I received a video from 10 or 15 girls in a restaurant in Texas, singing it. They messaged me that one girl had her heart completely broken—I think they’re in high school—so whenever she’s sad, all her friends put her in a circle and sing ‘I Hope’ to her. That’s crazy.”