UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
"Play On" features 13 tracks, seven of which were co-written by Underwood. "I'm not an easy person to get to know, and I feel like I keep a lot of myself closed off to the world," she says. "It's really nice to be able to scratch the surface and to be able to open myself up a little more."
In recording "Play On," Underwood once again worked with producer Mark Bright, who produced "Carnival Ride" and seven tracks on "Some Hearts." "Over the summer, we spent more time with arrangements, and Carrie experimented more than ever with vocal textures," Bright says. "What came out on the other side is extraordinary. I think we got it right."
Underwood says she trusts Bright and that makes recording a more comfortable process. "I've known him now for five years," she says. "I've worked with him on every album and I trust him and he trusts me. I'm comfortable with him now-whereas in the beginning it was like, 'Oh, my gosh. This guy is a big-time producer. What if I do bad?' I was really afraid to mess up. Now I'm not afraid to screw up. I can screw up royally when I'm in the studio and it's OK. I trust him."
In the past, Underwood co-wrote with a stable of Music Row tunesmiths including Hillary Lindsey and Luke Laird, who co-wrote "So Small" and "Last Name," and Brett James, who co-wrote "Jesus Take the Wheel" with Lindsey and Gordie Sampson. In writing for "Play On," she expanded her circle to collaborate with "American Idol" judge/BMI 2007 pop songwriter of the year Kara DioGuardi; Mike Elizondo, known for his work with
Galante attributes much of Underwood's success to her multigenerational appeal. "Carrie goes from cradle to grave," he says of her fans. "She has positioned herself as somebody that cares about this format deeply. She is a country artist. She's made it very plain."
In the past four years, Underwood has dominated country radio with such No. 1 hits as "Jesus Take the Wheel," "Before He Cheats," "Wasted," "All-American Girl," "So Small" and "Just a Dream." Galante speaks with obvious pride of how Underwood has handled success. "I think it all hit her like a ton of bricks in the first couple of years and now this year has been easier," he says. "Carrie has grown up a lot considering she got dropped into this format on her head, not on her feet, and people were standing on the sidelines going, 'You're not really country, you're a TV show star.' I think she's impressed the heck out of people by her reverence for country music."
Underwood's manager Simon Fuller, chief executive of 19 Entertainment and creator of the "Idol" franchise, has high expectations for "Play On." "I think we'll exceed the success of the last album with this album," he says. "It's stronger in depth and there's more variety. The first single is just a complete smash."
Part of the efforts to alert Underwood's fans that there's a new album coming involved revamping her Web site, CarrieUnderwoodOfficial.com . "What we're trying to do with the Web site is give fans a place to go where they could participate with what's going on with Carrie, and that's why the site is set up to be more community-based," says Sony Music Nashville VP of digital business Heather McBee. "They can upload photos. They can participate on the message boards and talk about the project."
One thing Underwood doesn't plan to use is Twitter. "It just sounds like organized stalking to me," she says. "I'll be in a restaurant and I'll get home and somebody tweeted and talked about what I ordered and what I was wearing. In some cases that could be dangerous because you don't want everybody to know where you are in every second of every day." (There's someone posing as Underwood on Twitter, in the comments on her Web site and on MySpace, and she warns fans that it isn't her.)
McBee says the label has planned special promotions with iTunes to roll out new music from the album. Starting Oct. 3, a track will be released each week exclusively through the retailer, leading up to a "Complete My Album" promotion when the full album is released Nov. 3 (you will be able to hear previews of these tracks right here on Billboard.com beginning on the Sundays before each of the iTunes releases).
"People have already paid for those first four tracks, so it's about getting them to buy into the album because obviously the album is the experience we want people to have," McBee says.
Paul Barnabee, senior VP of sales and operations at Sony Music Nashville, says retail is eagerly anticipating "Play On." "It's been amazing to see our retail partners embrace this long-awaited release so passionately," he says. Underwood will participate in Wal-Mart's Soundcheck program, and Barnabee anticipates more opportunities since Underwood and labelmate Brad Paisley will co-host the CMA Awards the week before her album is released.
Another opportunity that should help drive sales is Underwood's first TV special, slated to air Dec. 7 on Fox, with guests including Paisley, Dolly Parton  and David Cook . "It's a variety special featuring Carrie and that's something we've not done before," Fuller says. "As Carrie develops more as an artist, we can do things like this. Carrie has potential to be an actress as well, so who knows what is coming in the next few years?"
Though plans are still in the works, Fuller wants to expose Underwood's music internationally. "We've got a shot at actually breaking out of America and having a run at a couple of other countries around the world," he says, adding that he plans to first focus on Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany. "The world needs to discover Carrie Underwood, so that's something exciting to come. Carrie always said that she'd love to take country music to the world and that would make her very proud."
For the immediate future, Underwood is just looking forward to co-hosting the CMA Awards and embarking on her new tour in 2010. "We'll go into rehearsals early next year, but it's going to be bigger. It's going to be awesome. We're pulling out all the stops," says Underwood, who was the top-ranked female country touring artist of 2008, according to Billboard Boxscore, grossing $27.1 million from 90 shows.
"I don't need to make any money, let's just do this," Underwood jokingly told her handlers about the tour. "Let's just step it up. I know everybody is going to say, 'Oh, my gosh. This cost what?' But, shoot, we can come back next year with an acoustic tour. This year let's just go for broke."
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