The country star, 46, selected the 15-year-old to advance to the live shows after she performed her emotional, original song for judges Simon Cowell, Julianne Hough, Howie Mandel and Gabrielle Union.
“It was the combination of her talent, and where she was in the show, and the idea that what she has is a talent,” Paisley tells PEOPLE of Pecora, who first broke hearts with her original composition “7th Grade” about overcoming bullying in school.
“I went in there realizing you had this one sort of lifeline that you could throw out and guarantee the person a path forward,” the guest judge says of the “big” responsibility of his Golden Buzzer. “I realized that she was this talent as a voice in her grade. We’re talking about an age group that needs somebody to be able to sort of put into words what that’s like, and that’s pretty rare.”
Recognizing Pecora’s shyness and authenticity, the three-time Grammy winner also applauds the teenager for staying true to herself.
“Her song that got her to my night was also great. She’s quirky, she’s not the type that stands up there and belts out something like a Whitney Houston song. Those are easy for everybody to leap to their feet and move on to the next round,” Paisley recalls. “It’s something she wrote, it’s brand new, it’s exactly from her heart. It’s got some wisdom, and she’s sort of soft-spoken.”
Paisley also likens Pecora to one of the biggest names in music, who also started with humble beginnings.
“Sophie’s more of the coffee house vibe, and I thought [the Golden Buzzer] might need the nudge, because it reminded me, actually, of some of the early stuff that Taylor Swift was doing,” he says. “In the sense that Taylor was writing these songs that started out with her and a guitar, and what it was like to be that age, and every girl that was anywhere near that situation immediately just took to what Taylor was doing. Sophie delivered it perfectly.”
In addition to helping Pecora, Paisley says the reaction from the crowd and judges made his AGT experience that much better.
“What was really validating for me, as much as I think of Simon, he turned to me and said, ‘That may be my favorite golden buzzer.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah. I didn’t expect you to do that. I’m glad you did. That’s perfect,’ ” Paisley recalls.
“Simon felt like it was the perfect use of the Golden Buzzer because, just the fact that some of these soft-spoken, really wise type songwriters, they can fall through the cracks without a push,” he says.
Overall, Paisley says his time on AGT was gratifying, especially to be with new talent such as Pecora.
“When you think about it on a larger scale, on one hand, it’s a talent show, and it’s a competition, you’re not out there to save the world,” he says. “But, at the same time, it felt like a big deal to me that a girl of her age had so much to say that was necessary.”
Paisley adds, “I think I’d like to hear a whole album from Sophie.”
America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.