Carrie Underwood: Billboard Cover Story
Few female vocalists in any genre can boast a more stylistically diverse résumé than Carrie Underwood. In the past year alone, she's scored a No. 1 country hit with pal Brad Paisley, partnered with rock icon Steven Tyler for top-rated CMT show "Crossroads" and performed with legendary crooner Tony Bennett at the Grammy Awards, serving up the classic "It Had to Be You," their collaboration on Bennett's Duets II album. It is Underwood's appreciation for varied musical styles and her perpetual thirst for a creative challenge that laid the foundation for "Blown Away," her fourth and most adventurous album, due May 1 on 19 Recordings/Arista Nashville.
"I never feel like I've pigeon-holed myself into a certain kind of song," Underwood says. "I've taken all of my albums into as many different directions as possible, while still keeping them coherent. This is just a whole new level of that. I really do think there's something for everyone."
Sitting in the Music Row offices of XIX Management on a Friday afternoon, Underwood looks gorgeous even in purple sweatpants and a navy blue Nashville Predators sweatshirt, a nod to the hometown hockey team where her husband, Mike Fisher, is an NHL star. Pushing back her long blond locks, she smiles warmly and confidently begins discussing her forthcoming album. The Checotah, Okla., native has clearly come a long way from the shy young woman who won the fourth season of "American Idol" in 2005.
In slightly more than six years, Underwood has accomplished more than most artists do in a lifetime. She's become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. She's earned three female vocalist awards from both the Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music and two ACM entertainer of the year trophies, among dozens of other accolades. She and Paisley have hosted the CMA Awards for the past four years, and she made her foray into acting with the 2011 film "Soul Surfer."
"She is authentic, exciting and ever-relevant," says Simon Fuller, creator and executive producer of "American Idol" and founder/CEO of XIX Entertainment. "I am proud to have overseen this extraordinary evolution from 'Idol' contestant to a legitimate idol in her own right."
Underwood has also become the most successful "Idol" champ, selling 12.5 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Her debut, "Some Hearts," bowed in December 2005 and spent 27 weeks atop Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, selling 7.2 million units. "Carnival Ride," which debuted at No. 1 in November 2007 and has sold 3.2 million, came next. Her most recent effort, "Play On," also bowed atop the chart in November 2009 and has sold 2.1 million.
Underwood says she took longer in making her new album. "It seems like people have an album out every year and they are on a 'perma-tour' is what I call it. They tour permanently, all the time. I think I just made that word up," she says with a smile. "They live on tour and when they aren't on tour, they are making an album. To me, if you have no life in between albums, you have nothing to write about . . . I have to live."
"Good Girl," the lead single from "Blown Away," is rocketing up the Hot Country Songs chart. It's No. 8 after seven weeks on the tally. "We definitely did the right thing by taking some extra time," Underwood says. "You've got to make people miss you a little bit."
Underwood's last single from "Play On," "Mama's Song," debuted in September 2010 and peaked at No. 2 on Hot Country Songs in January 2011. But after that, even though the label wasn't working a new single, Underwood wasn't absent from country radio. "Remind Me," a duet from Paisley's This Is Country Music, hit No. 1 last September. "It definitely helped to keep her with a current single on the radio," Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton says.
Underwood has been a strong, consistent presence on country radio since the beginning of her career, scoring 11 No. 1s from her first three albums, among them "Jesus, Take the Wheel" (No. 1 for six weeks) and "Before He Cheats" (No. 1 for five), as well as "Wasted," "So Small," "Cowboy Casanova" and "Temporary Home."
"She knows her audience," says Jeff Kapugi, PD at WUSN Chicago and VP of country programming for CBS Radio. "The lyrics to her songs touch people, and her music is fun."
Yet perusing the Hot Country Songs chart in any given week, it's obvious women are in the minority. Underwood, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert consistently fare well, but for most female artists, country radio is an uphill battle. Country programmers "are reacting to their research," Overton says. "I don't know why listeners don't want to hear as many females. All you can do is find compelling music, which, obviously, Carrie has delivered."
Clay Hunnicutt, senior VP of programming at Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, considers Underwood's believability as key to her winning streak.
"She knows exactly who she is, what she's about, what her fans want and expect, and then she delivers it like very few can," he says. "She is a clear and present woman of substance. If you think about some of the greatest women in country music, past and present -- Loretta [Lynn], Martina [McBride], Reba [McEntire], Taylor [Swift], Miranda [Lambert] and Carrie -- they are all women of substance. It's not a story that has been created to fabricate a career. Carrie is not fake . . . She's married, lives her life like she says she does, is serious when she needs to be, and then shows her sense of humor and style when the times call for it."
Hunnicutt is a big fan of Underwood's new single. "I really love it, great energy," he says. "It shows off Carrie's voice in multiple places, while also having a good ebb and flow in the song that treats you like you're on a roller coaster. It comes out of the gate fast with a jolt, then slows a little to climb back up, then back down the other side at 100 mph."
KRTY San Jose, Calif., GM Nate Deaton notes Underwood's overall commitment to country and her willingness to embrace the format. "Carrie has kind of grown up with us. Go back and compare [first single] 'Inside Your Heaven' to 'Good Girl,'" he says. "She has always been, first and foremost, a country artist."
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