Carrie Underwood's 11 Greatest Performances
Carrie Underwood earned her first-ever entertainer of the year nomination for this year’s landmark 50th CMA Awards, and for many of her fans, the designation was a long time coming. Her 2016 Storyteller Tour has undoubtedly been her most impressive undertaking yet; from the in-the-round setting and dazzling stage lights to the singer’s spirited combination of bombast and intimacy, she's a long way from being that shy Oklahoma girl who clucked like a chicken during her Idol audition a decade ago.
On Billboard’s mid-year touring update, Underwood commanded the top country spot, with a nearly $30 million gross and over 449,000 fans in attendance. She bested the likes of Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan on the scorecard -- looks like tomatoes might just be more satisfying after all. So far this year, she has performed a total of 47 shows, including last week’s concert at Staples Center in L.A. Underwood is set to make her long-awaited Madison Square Garden debut next month (Oct. 25).
In the entertainer of the year category, Underwood will face off against country veteran Brooks, commercial giant Bryan, consistent singer/songwriter Keith Urban and soulful troubadour Chris Stapleton for the title. She is also nominated for female vocalist of the year and album of the year (for 2015’s Storyteller record). The singer will be multitasking (hopefully), co-hosting with Brad Paisley for the ninth year running. The show will be broadcast live Nov. 2 from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, airing on ABC at 8 p.m. ET.
To commemorate Underwood’s nomination, it’s time to look at exactly why she poses the biggest threat to her competitors. Read on for 11 times she out-entertained everyone else in country music.
“Church Bells,” 2016 ACM Awards
Within the span of two months, Underwood performed this deathly tale on three separate occasions. But unlike a few of her contemporaries, each rendering was significantly different -- from the staging to the costumes to detailed musical choices, the entertainer made sure to give fans something special each and every time. Dressed like a female RoboCop in a steely miniskirt, her electric moment on the CMA Awards sister show proved to be her most memorable. Not only was the stage wrapped in a Southern gothic staircase and eerie cathedral arches, but midway through the performance, Underwood took out her rage on two giant steel drums. She didn’t miss a beat or even a powerhouse note.
“I Will Always Love You,” 2016 Storyteller Tour (Tulsa, Oklahoma)
Taking on a Dolly Parton classic (later made famously grand by pop diva Whitney Houston) is a behemoth of a task. Amid her stagey and highly produced tour, Underwood made sure to pay tribute to one of the greatest storytellers of all time with a contrasting delicate and subtle performance; the sheer control she displayed with this romantic ode should be the 8th World Wonder. The tender showstopper is a lovely reprieve from Underwood’s more rock-soaked and high-energy songs, and the sugary sweet melody allows her to dig her voice into nuance unlike anything she’s ever mastered before. Judging by continued social buzz, it is a performance many of her fans look forward to most. Notably, Underwood blends both the Parton and Houston versions into a cool hybrid worthy of the highest honor.
“Choctaw County Affair,” 2016 CMA Fest: Country’s Night to Rock
Demonstrating her knack for Delta Blues, the Okie from Checotah rips through this Storyteller standout with sass and class. The drip-drop-drip-drippity-drop of her twangy vocal alone can be a marvel to behold, but put a harmonica in her hands and true magic can happen. She’s been performing this track countless times on her wildly successful Storyteller Tour this year, but her high-profile TV spot gave the story song much-needed exposure. Facing off in a do-or-die harmonica duel with longtime band member Chad Jeffers added an extra level of intensity and charm, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt the kind of high-caliber performer Underwood has become.
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Keith Urban, American Idol series finale
Underwood’s voice is as is versatile as a chameleon, able to easily slip into any genre with ease and fervor. Playing the part of Stevie Nicks (to Urban’s Tom Petty), the country staple has never seemed so uninhibited and free onstage; her voice, too, was polished and in tip-top shape, scrubbing the floor with every other Idol finalist who has ever existed. If newbies are looking for a test case of how this entire business works, look no further than Underwood.
“Smoke Break,” “Heartbeat” and “Before He Cheats,” 2016 New Year’s Rockin’ Eve
Even with a head cold, Underwood weathered the NYC conditions to offer her fans a cozy, three-song set. Of course, her biggest top 40 hit to date would be the bookend to her performance, which also featured two of her more country offerings from her latest album. Dolled up with glittery eye shadow and an emerald-green blazer, the singer brought a much-needed dose of down-home storytelling to the proceedings. Left in anyone else’s hands, the moment would have fallen flatter than a flapjack.
"How Great Thou Art," ACM Presents Girls Night Out: Superstar Women of Country (2011)
"Are you ready?" Underwood inquired of esteemed veteran and mentor Vince Gill moments before she catapulted into the sky with what is, perhaps, her greatest vocal achievement to date. The traditional hymn has been covered countless times over the years, but we'd be willing to bet no one had ever attacked the lyrics with such fervor. And the singer didn't overcook the arrangement or the delivery, instead allowing it to simmer. Gill's tender but riveting guitar playing was a proclamation all its own, but when Underwood shot from the heart in the second half, she held the world in the palm of her hand.
"Different Drum" (Linda Ronstadt Tribute), 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Underwood and living legend Linda Ronstadt have more in common than most people realize. Both have a penchant for blurring genre lines, threading together a colorful tapestry of their influences. The former is decidedly more pop influenced, but her roots run far and wide, nonetheless. When she stepped into this rock standard, it was evident something truly mesmerizing was unfolding, as if she were channeling Ronstadt herself. The rollicking country-rock toe-tapper allowed Underwood to show great restraint and caress the melody, something she doesn't get to do too often.
"I Told You So" with Randy Travis, American Idol (2009)
Amid criticism of not being "country" enough, she threw in this curve ball, a cover of the 1987 Randy Travis classic "I Told You So" for her mega-selling 2007 studio album Carnival Ride. Her solo recording is exquisite and tender in its own right, but when she joined the iconic Travis for this Idol moment, all mouths were agape. Travis' scruffier take on the ballad grounds Underwood's more lilting, high-flying verses.
“Dirty Laundry,” The Ellen Show (2016)
This murky saloon haunt is one of Underwood’s most accomplished recordings, and it should prove to be a monster to tackle live. The wine-soaked kiss-off may be the fourth single from Storyteller, but it is one of the record’s most musically adventurous pieces. Backed by her trusty ragtag crew of musicians who bolster the song with dusty guitar and heart-throbbing percussion, Underwood is able to entice the daytime talk show into her dark corner of the world.
Sunday Night Football theme song (2016)
While not exactly a “live” performance, Underwood poured her heart into revamping America’s game with a new song. Rewriting her Billboard Hot Country Songs No. 1 hit “Somethin’ Bad” (with Miranda Lambert), the country superstar certainly hypes up the crowd with barn-burning foot stomps, bubbly pompoms, fireworks and a salute to the playing teams. Plus, she does all this in knee-high high-heel boots -- credit where credit is due, and all that.
“Church Bells,” CMT Music Awards
Sure, one song makes this list twice, but Underwood’s creativity is as sharp as her vocal prowess. Enlisting the assist of a Nashville gospel choir, the performance proved far more sinister and haunting than the rock-directed recording might suggest. The performance opened with a lone banjo, echoing the pain and urgency in Underwood’s own voice. As the story unravels, electric guitar and alarming drums ring out over the production. By the end, Underwood faces off in a vocal battle against the choir before finishing off with an R&B acrobatic routine and one helluva glory note.