'Rabid' Fans Of Carrie Underwood, Other Country Stars Keep Radio On Tight Leash

Carrie Underwood
Terry Wyatt/WireImage

Carrie Underwood performs onstage at the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 2, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

After news broke in March of Carrie Underwood’s move from longtime label home Arista Nashville to Capitol, her passionate fan base took to social media to renew their frequent — and, most industry insiders would say, completely unfounded — complaints about Arista parent Sony Music.

Many critiques followed a similar pattern. Despite the fact that Underwood sold millions of albums while at Sony, enjoyed a lengthy string of hits (all 25 of her singles promoted to country radio reached the Billboard Country Airplay top 10) and won countless awards, including seven Grammys, a faction of her fan base is somehow convinced the label group didn’t adequately support her.

"Sony really let her down since the start of the decade," one fan wrote in response to a Taste of Country story. “Hopefully she can finally win entertainer of the year at the CMA [Awards] and re-establish herself as country music’s pre-eminent star.” Another wrote, “Finally Sony can stop screwing her over in order to give its male singers the Billboard No. 1 (Carrie almost always stops at No. 2.)”( Not true: 15 of her 25 Country Airplay top 10s reached No. 1, the most by any female artist since the chart’s launch in January 1990.) One fan tweeted to country site Roughstock that Sony “did nothing to promote her or her music. She deserves a label that goes the whole mile.” Another commented on a Saving Country Music story, “Always felt like Sony hitched their wagon to Miranda [Lambert] no matter what Carrie did.”

Others seemed to believe newcomer Maren Morris siphoned Sony’s attention from Underwood.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Underwood’s fans are notoriously vocal when they don’t like something relating to the artist Silverfish Media director of programming Patrick Thomas calls “their queen.” He should know. Seven years ago, in the aftermath of the devastating Nashville flood, Big D of Silverfish’s nationally syndicated Big D & Bubba Show jokingly introduced Underwood as “Carrie Underwater” when she sat down for an interview. All hell broke loose.

While Thomas says Underwood herself got the “innocent” joke and took it in stride, her fans, which he calls the “Carrie army,” turned on the show. “They lit us up,” recalls Thomas, citing specific comments like one about how Big D had damaged the singer’s soul with his quip. “We had hundreds of tweets and Facebook mentions. They were full on attacking us … We were shocked.

“We call them ‘People from the Internet,’ ” says Thomas of such fans. “They get lathered up easy, and they do strike.” Big D and Bubba ended up posting an apology on Facebook and sending flowers to Underwood, who in a subsequent interview with the team called her fans “protective.”

WUBB Savannah, Ga., morning host Tim Leary had a similar experience after he made a poor choice of words. “I wanted to give her a great intro, so I said, ‘The next person I’m ready to introduce is just enormous,’ ” he recalls. “Carrie leaned into the mic and said, ‘Did you just call me enormous?’ [then joked,] ‘I’ve been called many things. Enormous has not been one of them. Way to make a girl feel good about herself. Think I’ll go exercise for a while now.’

“The moment that aired, Carrie’s fans flooded the station with calls,” says Leary. “I instantly became the guy that called Carrie fat. For months following that, the fans would call and bring that moment up.”

And Underwood, who Leary says has a terrific sense of humor, didn’t forget either. A year later, she was on the show again, and Leary commented on “a giant hoop dress” she’d worn on the Country Music Association Awards. Underwood responded, “ ‘Are you saying I looked fat in that dress too?’ Rinse. Repeat cycle one with Carrie fans all over again.”

But it’s not just Underwood’s fans who are passionate about the artists they love. Leary says fans of Love and Theft are “true die-hards” who call and tweet every time the duo has new music out. KPLX Dallas assistant PD Smokey Rivers gets barraged most by fans of the artists who populate the Texas/Red Dirt music scene. “They’re very loyal to the genre,” he says. “So when we play a couple of those artists in daytime rotation, we hear the occasional, ‘What about [another Texas artist]? How come you never play them?’ They’re nice about it, but they are a determined bunch.”

WUBE/WYGY Cincinnati PD Grover Collins says that through the years, his stations have “gotten beaten up through Twitter, Facebook and request lines with any American Idol singer worked to country, to the point where I’ve told the record companies that [such fans are] doing more bad than good with their persistence.” That includes followers of  Scotty McCreery, according to KRTY San Jose, Calif., PD Julie Stevens, who says they “took that stuff to a whole new level: calls, tweets, texts, and it was never-ending.” KMPS Seattle PD Kenny Jay agrees, calling McCreery’s fans “one of the more passionate groups online. It’s been a positive experience with them for us, but they are organized and will deploy when called on to vote in a song war or remind you of add day.”

While he doesn’t name names, KUPL Portland, Ore., music director Danny Dwyer says, “We get a lot of fans’ P1s asking us to play the new singles from an artist or group, and if we don’t, then they get a little upset with us. Does that help us make a decision to add the record? No, but it’s a good sign that they are listening and want their star to kick ass and succeed."

“Most of the rabid and persistent fans are those of the new and unknown artists,” says WQMX Akron, Ohio, assistant PD Ken Steel. “They’re trying to help break the new artists, and they really think they can be a part of that whole process. It seems like once an artist is established, those rabid fans back off bothering us radio folks a bit.” Case in point: WQMX morning host Scott Wynn has a listener who calls nearly every day requesting Chris Janson. He agrees with Steel that “most of the rabidity is for artists that are new. They may have dreams of helping make them big. Brantley Gilbert’s fans were very rabid when he first came out and they thought Jason Aldean was ‘ripping off his songs.’ ”

KWJJ Portland, Ore., assistant PD/music director Savannah Jones also says she hears most often from fans of developing acts, particularly if those artists are active on social media. “It’s an interesting grass-roots thing,” she says. “Like with Brantley and Zac Brown Band in the beginning, their people find them, love them and promote them with calls, emails and face to face.” Jones thinks most fans don’t understand how record-label promotion teams work and “may hear about perceived slights through various sources and then stand behind their artist. It is the beauty of the artist/fan connection,” she adds. “Loyalty goes deep.”

Stevens also sees an upside. “Fans are and can be more involved than ever today,” she says. “And the fact that artists can almost touch those fans directly should give radio cause for pause.”

Leary says country fans are equally passionate about what they don’t like. “Social media goes insane, and the callers melt the phone lines down,” over those songs, he says. “The fans truly take ownership of their music. I think it is what makes the country music industry great. But whatever you do, don’t call Carrie fat.” 

This article first appeared in the Country Update newsletter. Sign up for it here.

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