13 years after her American Idol win, Carrie Underwood is far from done

“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 LA’.”

Underwood recently received her own 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.

Immediate embrace

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.

Photo: Handout

Talk about hiding your light under a bushel: A lark of a 2004 audition for Idol 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 (reviewed here).

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.

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.

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.

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, 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.”

Underwood with her husband Fisher and their son Isaiah at the unveiling of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last month. Photo: Reuters

Underwood with her husband Fisher and their son Isaiah at the unveiling of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last month. Photo: Reuters

Perspective change

Underwood has scheduled a lag between the album’s release last 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 ingenue. 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.” – Reuters

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