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How Carrie Underwood Got Over Her Lyrical Shyness, With Help From a Label President

One reason Underwood switched teams to sign with Universal: a chance to reunite with Cindy Mabe, one of the first and still favorite execs she worked with coming out of "American Idol."

When Carrie Underwood left her longtime home at Sony Nashville last year to sign with Universal Music Group Nashville’s Capitol imprint, it wasn’t due to faltering chart positions, as is typical for country artists who jump ship. Rather, with Underwood, who consistently charts No. 1’s at radio, the move had more to do with her desire to get the old band back together — in this case, reuniting with Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, who worked with Underwood at Sony when her smash debut came out hot on the heels of an “American Idol” win.

“We sold a lot of records together, but I moved to Capitol right after that first project,” Mabe says. “And she was the hardest one for me to walk away from, because I knew there was more depth to get to. Fast-forward to where we are now, I never thought that Carrie would ever leave Sony, frankly; her catalog’s there and she’s had so much success. This has completely renewed my energy and creativity, and we’re ready to push each other to accomplish everything we can together.”

It’s hard to imagine someone who’s sold as many records as Underwood not getting to call her own shots, previously.

“She wasn’t suppressed,” says Mabe. “But through the platform of ‘Idol’ she was appointed a manager, appointed a record label, and appointed almost every decision in her life. So when her contract came to an end, this was the first chance to really make her own decisions.”

“I was lucky I got to work with some insanely incredible people at Sony from the get-go,” Underwood says. “And even though, after ‘Idol,’ it was kind of like, ‘This is your record label’” — like it or not — “it ended up being a wonderful thing. Cindy was somebody I loved working with early on in my career, and we were all devastated when she left [Sony]. Now, I’m working with new people, but also … I don’t want to say old people, because that’s not a good word, but people that I’ve loved in the past as well. So it felt like home.”

Even more key than the label change was the decision to make a more revelatory record, as heard in the new “Cry Pretty.” “You know, she’s introverted,” says Mabe. “She has not always laid her cards on the table and vocalized things. She’s been this amazing vocalist and a storyteller who’s taken you on rides, but they haven’t necessarily been very personal journeys for her. And I feel like the game-changer is this record.”

How so? “There’s some really sexy stuff on here that she’s never really done or said before,” offers Mabe. “And there are some really personal moments that have this compassion spoken only as a mother can really speak.”

Given Underwood’s desire to work with female execs, managers and co-writers as much as she does, and book an all-female tour, is the singer a stealth uber-feminist? “I see two Carrie Underwoods, for sure,” Mabe says. “On one hand, she feels the weight of the world on her sometimes — from a standpoint of making sure that she’s there to represent women. Now, she will never say that, but I absolutely believe that, especially when you look at the few and far between that are actually on the radio. I can tell you from personal conversations how important it is that she gives back to the next group of females behind her. And this is such a woman’s record. But she’s also a real competitor — not just versus females. So that’s the other side of Carrie Underwood. Carrie wants to represent for just being great, not being the greatest woman.”

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