“I never thought in a million years that I would have the opportunity to even attend the CMAs or Grammys, or go visit the Walk of Fame, let alone participate in any of that,” says Carrie Underwood, who didn’t spend much of her Oklahoma upbringing even daring to dream. “Where I was from, and in my life, that just wasn’t something that was achievable. My first time on an airplane was coming out to Los Angeles when I was 21 to go to the Hollywood round of ‘American Idol.’ They were nice enough to take us to some of the touristy places, and I got to see some of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard and take pictures with them. I was like, ‘Man, as soon as they kick me off, at least I’ve been to L.A.’”
And when her “Idol” tour group did get to the Walk of Fame, there was one star in particular she trekked to. “I’m pretty sure I have a picture of myself with LeVar Burton’s star. I was pretty excited when I ran across that. I was like, ‘Sweet!’ I’m a bit of a Trekkie.”
Selfies probably won’t factor into her next Hollywood Walk of Fame photo-op. On Sept. 20, Underwood will receive her own sidewalk star in a ceremony to be co-emceed by two guys she’s shared a lot of TV time with, ex-“Idol” judge Simon Cowell and fellow country music favorite Brad Paisley. Knowing the irascible personas of these two, there will probably be some merciless teasing as well as feting going on, even if they won’t quite be walking all over her, the way thousands of future visitors to the sidewalk outside the Capitol Records tower at 1750 N. Vine St. will.
Underwood will be getting her star in the recording category, though she could conceivably claim another someday just for being a TV personality. After all, she was a television star before she was a multi-platinum arena filler, rising to instant fame as the season four winner of “Idol” in 2005. And for 11 of those subsequent years, she’s co-helmed the annual CMA Awards telecast with Paisley — an enduring miracle of chemistry that represents the only truly steady gig in the wide world of awards hosting. (She’ll be back in that role on ABC Nov 14.)
But when her name appears on the star, it will be in recognition of her status as the most enduring successful female artist country music has had in recent years — with 15 No. 1 hits as a solo singer and several more as a duet partner, plus RIAA certifications for 18 million albums and 30 million singles sold. “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” her post-“Idol” debut, seems far in the rear-view mirror, as she’s had a run of smashes that have never peaked any lower than No. 3 at country radio. And she’s done this as a woman, which — if you’ve followed the controversies about country radio’s lady-less rotations — means that, in dude years, she’d be about seven times as successful.
It’s been an Okie Cinderella story with a happily-ever-after denouement that still hasn’t worn off, 13 years after the point when most “Idol” winners start wearing out their welcome. The daughter of a school teacher and mill worker in Checotah, an Oklahoma town of fewer than 3,500, Underwood had quieted any professional singing aspirations she might have had by the time she went to study mass communications at a nearby university, biding her time as a waitress and competing in the occasional college beauty pageant. Talk about hiding your light under a bushel: A lark of a 2004 audition for “Idol” in St. Louis, which was about as far as Underwood had ever traveled at age 21, proved that she was soon to become Oklahoma’s greatest cultural export since Garth Brooks, if not Mickey Mantle. The most shoo-ed in win in TV singing contest history led to an immediate embrace by her genre of choice, country. A mountain of chutzpah-building statistics later, she still sounds guileless when she recounts that first trip out for the “Idol” Hollywood round, as if it were an even bigger thrill than the seven Grammys, six CMAs, 14 ACMs, 12 American Music Awards and 18 CMT Awards.
Most others in her position would have been through a hundred head trips by now, but Underwood has been, if anything, slow on the draw when it comes to power plays. But there’s a slight shift on the sovereignty scale evident with her new album, “Cry Pretty.” She made the bold decision to switch label groups, to Universal from Sony, after a career-long association with the former that had resulted in zero clear misfires to date. While she was at it, she switched up producers, going with David Garcia, who’s primarily worked outside country music (aside from a little Record of the Year contender called “Meant to Be” by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line). On top of that, she jumped into a co-producer’s chair for the first time, and co-wrote nine of the 13 new songs, more than on any album before. For someone who’s prone to humility in public and private, even as she’s grown more quietly empowered, this represents a true “Carrie, take the wheel” moment.
|Carrie Underwood returns as a guest performer on “American Idol” in May, after winning the competition in 2005.
Courtesy of ABC
Some of these changes “were unrelated,” Underwood says, “but I think they all led to a fresh start, for sure.” And to a certain freedom, too. “I’m not great with rules and with boxes,” she adds. “At this point in my career, I just want to make great music.”
As for that co-credit, she says it comes after years of resisting a vanity title. “I’ve always had a big hand in in the production of whatever I’ve been working on, but I felt like this was time to take a little more ownership on my music, so it led me to co-producing with David,” Underwood says. “And every album I write more, and I still feel like I’m on the upswing as far as vocal things go … hopefully?”
So let’s get this out of the way: The new album is very pop. It’s also very country — twangier than a lot of her previous efforts, in fact. If that sounds oxymoronic, listening to “Cry Pretty’s” tracks will clear it up; it’s a long-player that veers between more extremes than she’s probably allowed herself before. “Low” begins and ends with the sound of pseudo-vinyl crackle and an acoustic guitar, aiming for authenticity in a howling ballad that likens her loneliness to “a cigarette without a light / Like a whippoorwill without the night.” On the more celebratory side, “Southbound” is all about pontooning and partying; it’s the first time an Underwood song has used the word “redneck.” Then there’s the modern R&B/pop of “That Song We Used to Make Love To” or “End Up With You,” where it sounds like she might be taking a cue from recent duet partner Keith Urban, in not being afraid of going ever so slightly urban.
Underwood isn’t about to tout any aspirations having to do with crossover. Her new label, however, is not afraid to. Underwood already proved back in 2006 that she could be all of America’s sweetheart and not just middle America’s when “Before He Cheats” became a top 10 hit at pop and AC as well as country. Well, actually she proved it the year before, when 500 million mostly genre-agnostic fans voted for her to win “Idol.” But there’s been curiously little attempt to work her at pop radio ever since.
That doesn’t jibe with the model provided a few years ago by Taylor Swift, who abruptly announced that she was leaving country — with great residual affection — giving as her reason that everybody needs to “pick a lane.”
Says Underwood: “For me, I know what lane I’m in, but maybe I’ll take a little scenic detour every once in a while. And that’s for fun’s sake, you know. I love having an album that I feel like takes people on a ride. And I’m not picking or writing songs to be like, ‘Oh, this can be our pop crossover.’ That’s not in my head even a little bit. I just want to write and sing songs that I love. I’ve never been a remix kind of girl. … [But] I do feel like it’s important for artists to grow and try new things or else we’re just making the same album over and over again. And to be honest, that’s my biggest fear.”
If there’s been any past reluctance, on a label’s part or anyone else’s, to avoid alienating country programmers with the threat of crossover, it might be understandable. Underwood is the only consistently reliable female hitmaker in the entire format — even Miranda Lambert’s chart peaks have ebbed and flowed — and it’s easy to picture powers-that-be not being eager to upset that delicate balance and suddenly reduce the number of female superstars at radio to zero. But the affection for her in and out of Nashville is so strong that she seems likelier to remain the one untouchable female star. That she really is in a category of one naturally exasperates her even more than it flatters her.
|Carried Underwood will reprise her role as co-host of the “CMA Awards” with Brad Paisley on Nov. 14 — her 11th time.
Is it lonesome, being pretty much the sole standard-bearer for women at country radio? “Well, I mean, I think that’s a little disap…” She corrects herself. “I mean, that’s not a little disappointing — that’s a lot disappointing. But at the end of the day, I don’t think of myself as ‘a woman in country music.’ I think of myself as an artist who works her butt off and hopefully makes great music.
“I get asked about women in country all the time, and it’s unfortunate that I do. There are so many people that are making great music and, for whatever reason, aren’t being heard. And we’ve been talking about it for a while! But I definitely think we need to put music where our mouth is and start giving these incredible artists who happen to be women more of an opportunity.”
“Happen to be women” is an operative phrase in Underwood’s vocabulary. It comes up again when you ask her about her upcoming tour, on which the opening acts will be Maddie & Tae (of sardonic “Girl in a Country Song” fame) and relative newcomers Runaway June. These acts have something in common. What could it be? Surprisingly, perhaps, Underwood isn’t eager to play that angle up… for all the right egalitarian reasons. “I mean, it’s a secondary statement,” she says. “I just wanted to make a great show and wanted people on stage that would kick some butt and entertain and were talented and smart and great to be around and hard workers — and it just so happens that they’re ladies. They’re great artists, first and foremost.”
Yet Underwood has a sort of quiet feminism about her — having a female manager, changing labels to work with a favorite female executive and booking all-female opening acts — while insisting that these are just the right people for the jobs. She’s known for embracing veganism and a Christian belief in marriage equality, even though she’s shy about using her platform to push these positions on a fan base that might still be largely about hamburger patties and Pence. Along those lines, there are some songs on “Cry Pretty” that at least skirt hot-button social topics, in the least button-pushing fashion imaginable.
One of these is a song called “Love Wins,” named after a phrase associated with tolerance. “When we were writing it,” she says, “it was very much on our minds that we wanted whoever was hearing it, wherever they landed, politically or religiously, even geographically, to be able to listen to it and say: ‘Yeah.’ It was important to write a socially conscious song without being polarizing. We wanted to get to the heart of the issue: that at the end of the day it’s about treating each other with respect and trying to understand people that are different from us.”
|Carrie Underwood is flanked by fellow finalists Constantine Maroulis, left, and Bo Bice on season four of “American Idol.”
Another along these lines is “The Bullet,” a song about the aftermath of gun violence. That could hardly be a subject more fraught with potential to polarize, but this one starts with an acknowledgement that it’s divisive before moving on to explore pure loss. “It’s such an unfortunately timely — well, I mean, timeless and also timely — subject,” says Underwood. “But it’s written in such a way that it’s about the people that are affected, and not the issue.”
Underwood has scheduled a lag between the album’s release this month and the beginning of her tour in May, for reasons that recent news reports made obvious: She’s expecting her second child with retired pro hockey player Mike Fisher, whom she wed in 2010. Her 2019 tour actually has her hitting the road for a month and a half, taking a three-month break, then resuming concerts for another six weeks. There’s an experimental aspect to that, in balancing soon-to-be new motherhood and arenas.
“I’m like, OK, we’ll get kind of a trial run with a baby,” and then take a mid-tour summer vacation, she says. “I was lucky with the last tour; I had an 11-month-old who had a semi-routine, and he was a little more, um, sturdy, I guess. But this is going to be a different situation.”
More than a decade after “Idol,” we haven’t completely erased the image of the wide-eyed ingénue. But maybe, at 35, she’s more the grizzled veteran than she looks?
Says Underwood: “When somebody says ‘13 years’ and ‘six albums’ and starts throwing stats around, I’m like, I’ve done that much stuff? I don’t feel like I’m super-jaded or a grumpy old country singer. I still feel excited about things. But I have lived a lot of life in the past 13 years, and having a family does change your perspective and make you grow up even more. I definitely feel more confident in myself in every way — as a writer, as a producer, as a human. But I don’t know — I feel young and I feel old at the same time. And I feel like maybe that’s a good thing. It’s having experience but also having some naive excitement.”