From the very first time they hung out together last summer, Michael Ray and Carly Pearce each knew they had finally met their match. But for Pearce especially, the dream of marriage didn’t truly become “real” until the moment that Ray proposed just before Christmas.
In the weeks since that surprise proposal, it’s gotten a lot more real for both the bride- and groom-to-be as they’ve been in the thick of wedding planning. But don’t think for a minute that it’s been a chore. They’ve been having the time of their lives.
“It’s been literally the easiest,” the 30-year-old Ray tells PEOPLE. “I feel like I’m bragging, but everything just falls into place when it’s right.”
Indoor or outdoor wedding? No argument there. Both love the outdoors. But where? Pearce enlisted her mother, whom she calls her “best friend,” to help with the search, and the two women independently scoured the Internet for the perfect site.
Pearce, 28, emailed her mom saying she thought she’d found the one. It crossed paths in cyberspace with an email from her mom saying she’d found an ideal prospect. “They simultaneously, unknowingly sent each other the same place,” Ray says, retelling the story.
Pearce and Ray visited the location, within driving distance of their home in Nashville, and Ray says, “Yes, obviously this is it, so we got it.”
Whew. Check that one off the to-do list. Pearce checked off another when she found her dress at the first store she visited, a hidden-gem Nashville boutique she discovered while on a photo shoot for her upcoming album for Big Machine Records.
“I walked in and I was like, oh my goodness!” she says. Days later, she and her mom returned to try on dresses, and Pearce made her selection. (PEOPLE got a sneak peek — and no major hints, but lucky Michael!)
The dress will, of course, be kept under wraps until the wedding day, and Ray has already told Pearce he doesn’t want a “reveal” before the ceremony.
“He wants the first moment that he sees me to be walking down the aisle,” she says. “That’s the traditional side of him. I keep telling him — because he’s a crier — I’m not sure how that’s going to go. But if that’s what he wants, all right.”
Pearce and Ray are having to squeeze all their planning in between two calendar-clogged and upwardly mobile careers. Pearce is putting the finishing touches on her second album, with a batch of new co-writes inspired by the couple’s evolving relationship; first single “Closer to You” has so far reached the Top 40. She’s now on a co-headlining tour with Russell Dickerson, and she’ll head out in May to open for Jason Aldean. Next month, she’ll be at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in March as the only woman nominated in the best new country artist category.
Ray’s latest single, “One That Got Away,” just cracked the Top 10, and he’s just announced his headlining “Nineteen” tour, which reaches into the summer months. Dates include such top festivals as Tortuga and Stagecoach. Happily, both of their schedules intersect in England and Scotland for the Country to Country Festival in March. Their paths also noticeably crossed in Pearce’s brand-new video for “Closer to You,” in which Ray makes a steamy cameo appearance — check out all the behind-the-scenes details in the exclusive video above.
As the couple looks ahead to the wedding, they’re already beginning to imagine the mood they want to create. Pearce says “rustic” is the byword. “I want it to feel earthy and whimsical and romantic,” she says.
As for Ray, he’s no fool: “It’s truly whatever she wants and I’ll work with it.”
More than anything, the couple simply wishes to be surrounded by the people they love.
“We just want everybody to celebrate love and celebrate the wedding,” Ray says. “What I’m most looking forward to is looking at the reception crowd and knowing all of these people came together for us. We talked about that the other day, of how cool it’s going to be for our families to finally meet — just knowing that I see so many similar traits and qualities in her family and vice versa.”
Pearce wants to also keep the day casual. “If people want to wear jeans, cool,” she says. “I don’t want a sitdown dinner. I just want it to be about the people that really, really matter to us.”
And despite their abundant music connections, both say they prefer a disc jockey, not a live band, at the reception. “We’re still trying to figure it out,” Pearce says. “I think we’ll have somebody sing for our first dance and maybe sing when I walk down the aisle. But we want a DJ. We want it to be fun.”
They may want to practice those dance moves a little before the big day. These seem to be two people who don’t otherwise rush out to the dance floor.
“If we have a little bit of alcohol, we like to dance,” Pearce admits. “We found that out at the CMAs [awards night after-parties], so it was like, oh, okay, I guess we do like to dance.”
Neither Ray nor Pearce will reveal the actual date for the wedding, but Pearce confirms they will be husband and wife by the end of the year.
How’s that sound to Pearce?
“Crazy,” she says, “but awesome.”
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