From her beginnings as an "American Idol" champ to her multi-platinum country success to her recent foray into acting, Carrie Underwood covered a lot of ground during a Monday afternoon Q&A with Billboard's Senior Chart Manager Wade Jessen at Billboard's Country Music Summit.
Underwood is preparing for her first trip to Australia and told the packed audience that she had begun writing for her next album. The Oklahoma native acknowledged Idol's role in launching her career and defended the franchise when Jessen asked her about a comment Peter Noone from Herman's Hermits had made saying Idol wasn't a singing competition, but "a voting competition."
"I certainly disagree with that statement," Underwood said. "I guess it's a little bit of both but now days there aren't too many avenues of real discovery as far as if somebody like me who lives in Oklahoma just started playing in bars around Oklahoma, there's no way I'm going to get discovered. It just doesn't happen like that anymore. If you know the right people or you have enough money, then you can get your way into the industry, but American Idol is for people like me. It's for people like Scotty [McCreery] and Lauren [Alaina] who were in small towns and didn't know how to do it, but had a love for music and a great talent and did their thing."
Underwood sees 'Idol' representing the voice of the consumer. "People are telling you what they want and they don't have to wait for radio or media to tell them what they want," she said.
She encouraged McCreery not to listen to criticism that he was too country. "I really don't understand that terminology at all-'too country,' what is that?" she says. "I've been criticized for being 'too pop.' Everybody is too something it seems like, but the format is doing pretty good so obviously nobody is too anything. It's exciting to turn on the radio and hear traditional country and then hear Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban, which are a completely different sound. I personally don't want to hear the same song over and over again."
Underwood readily admits her singing career surpassed her expectations. "In the beginning my entire goal in being on Idol was to make enough money to go back to school when I got kicked off," she smiled. "Obviously, I was pleasantly surprised."
As Jessen recounted Underwood's many career highlights, she spoke reverently of being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. "I'm so honored to be part of that family," she said.
As she begins work on her new album, Underwood says she's definitely gained confidence as a songwriter, but always listens to outside material. "The best song wins-end of story," she says, noting she'd be crazy not to take advantage of all the songwriting talent in Nashville. "I want to give my fans the best album possible."
Jessen noted the viral success of her performance of "How Great Thou Art" with Vince Gill and asked if she would ever do a Christian record. "I would love to make a gospel album of hymns," she said. "There's no schedule. I take the opportunities as they come, but for myself, I would love to do that."
She enjoyed her recent role in "Soul Surfer," the biopic of Bethany Hamilton, the champion Hawaiian surfer who lost an arm during a shark attack. Underwood played youth pastor Sarah Hill and admits she'd be open to other acting roles, but says, "I take my opportunities as they come. If you try to force anything, it's not going to happen. I just say my prayers at night and ask God to give me direction."
Underwood has duets on both Randy Travis' new album, a cover of his hit "Is It Still Over?" and on Brad Paisley's new album. She and Paisley duet on "Remind Me," which is already being enthusiastically embraced by country radio. She regaled the audience with a lengthy account of how Brad first approached her about recording a duet before he'd finished writing the song and he was still changing lines during the recording session.
"He did his thing and I did my thing and I was so happy," she says. "It worked out perfectly."
As for Underwood's new record, it's a work in progress. "It's shaping up, at its earliest form, to be very eclectic," she says. "I always look for vocally challenging songs. It'll be me, but hopefully more progressive."