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Carrie Underwood's 'Carnival Ride' Turns 10: How the 'Idol' Winner Proved She's a Country Mainstay

Carrie Underwood
AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Carrie Underwood arrives at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2007. 

When Carrie Underwood snarls her lips around “Flat on the Floor,” originally cut by singer-songwriter Katrina Elam, you believe her. That feisty, Slugger-ville attitude runs in her blood. Back in 2007, coming off her massive debut cycle and still packing around the stigma of being an American Idol winner, Underwood had a lot to prove and little time to do it. On the back of four hit singles, including classics “Before He Cheats” and “Jesus Take the Wheel,” she turned her attention to exploring songwriting craft in greater detail.

"'Is there really anywhere to go but down?' There was that fear in my head,” she told Billboard at the time. “Then, we started picking songs, and I realized it was more [about] making an album for myself that I love.”

 

Where 2005 debut Some Hearts had a foot in both the pop and country worlds, Carnival Ride -- released Oct. 23, 2007, 10 years ago today -- risked alienating her largely pop fan base for a more grounded, neo-traditional flair. That creative move illustrated the first of many smart swerves she has since taken in her career. “Thank God even crazy dreams come true,” she belted on one of four co-writes, “Crazy Dreams. ” That song -- penned alongside Barry Dean (Martina McBride, Bill Anderson) and Troy Verges (Faith Hill, Kip Moore) -- mixed a pop-country hoedown with steely optimism for chasing that neon rainbow, serving as a plucky anthem for young dreamers. “All-American Girl,” too, written with Ashley Gorley (Brad Paisley, Dustin Lynch) and Kelley Lovelace (Terri Clark, Jason Aldean), embraced the doe-eyed charm of Middle America. The colorful music video, utilizing heavy green screen effects, empowered girls to dream as big as they want and pursue the career of their choosing.

Conversely, she regaled tales of drinking too much -- “I met a guy on the dance floor and I let him call me baby / And I don’t even know his last name / My momma would be so ashamed,” she howled on “Last Name” (co-written with Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey) -- an unlucky streak with guys (“The More Boys I Meet,” a nod to Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much”) and finding the silver lining (“So Small,” the album’s uplifting lead single, also co-written with Laird and Lindsey). Whittled between swift traditional dips (her rendition of Randy Travis’ 1988 hit “I Told You So” a refreshing admission), bleak narratives -- on “Wheel of the World, from which she draws the album’s title, she mused on life’s fated unraveling (“God put us here on this carnival ride / We close our eyes never knowing where it will take us next,” she sings) -- and torch singing (“I Know You Won’t” wields a Pasty Cline aura), Underwood’s vocal was sharper and more intricate. She transitioned from the reliable power belting of “Jesus Take the Wheel” into sterner and more compelling layers.

Her boldness in style, prowess and mood highlighted her viability as more than a one-trick pony. In later records, including 2012’s surprisingly dark Blown Away, Underwood delights in more dramatic storylines, including the deadly southern-gothic tale “Two Black Cadillacs” (which she co-wrote with Lindsey and Josh Kear). 2015’s Storyteller took one gigantic leap forward and witnessed some of her most progressive work to-date ?? but her risk-taking and willingness to address her own flaws began with Carnival Ride.

The record’s name was not just a poignant lyric from a song, it became the summation of Underwood’s tireless ambition and the carnival ride that became her life. “You do what you can to lean different directions to try and get it to go where you want it to go, but you can’t stop it – it just keeps moving,” she explained. “That’s why Carnival Ride works as my album title, because it describes the wonderful craziness that I’ve been through over the past couple years.”

 

Upon its release, the record bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 527,000 copies sold in its first week, according to Nielsen Music. At the time, it was the third-largest debut for an album by a female country artist since Nielsen began tracking sales in 1991. Her string of hit singles continued, from the emotional war-torn ballad “Just a Dream” to the Las Vegas escapade “Last Name.” And it was clear she was here to stay.

Underwood’s transformation from reigning queen to icon-in-the-making began with Carnival Ride. An impressive string of hit singles followed, and she most recently collected another one with a feature on Keith Urban’s glossy tune “The Fighter.” In turn, her legacy is imprinted in many of the next generation’s technique and style. You can find much of her gutsiness and pop-country charm seeping into the work of Lauren Alaina, Carly Pearce, Cam and Maren Morris.

Alaina’s sophomore album, Road Less Traveled, strikes a crisp and familiar balance of fun (“My Kinda People”), sweet (“Painting Pillows,” “Three”), brave (“Doin’ Fine”) and heartfelt (“Same Day Different Bottle”). Having finally snagged her first No. 1 hit with “Road Less Traveled,” her vocal inflections often mirror that of Underwood’s: bellowing power, stunning restraint and raw intensity. Meanwhile, Morris’ Grammy-nominated debut Hero incorporates more soul, foot-stomping blues and shimmering pop into the formula but still harkens to that lively mix of intelligent songwriting (“I Could Use a Love Song,” “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”) and liberated spirit (“Rich,” “80s Mercedes”). Cam, whose biggest influences include Patsy Cline and Reba McEntire, notched her first hit single with “Burning House,” a dreamy tribute to a scorned lover. Her accompanying album, Untamed, features sun-soaked country of the SoCal variety, with an edge of Underwood-esque tradition.

One of the year’s biggest breakouts lies in Pearce, who recently snagged her first top 10 hit with “Every Little Thing,” a brittle, emotional piano ballad and a tremendous creative statement. The newcomer borrows more than a few tricks from Underwood’s playbook on her debut LP of the same name: “Hide the Wine,” “Color” and “If My Name was Whiskey” clutch onto that same delightful wholesomeness while sharply and uniquely dressed. When she sings, you know it’s irrefutably Pearce tugging at your heartstrings.

Kelsea Ballerini, though, may have the most in common with Underwood. Both her and Underwood’s journeys are marked with similar milestones. Their debut singles, “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Jesus Take the Wheel,” respectively, hit the top spot at radio. Ballerini was the first solo female to take their debut single to the summit since Underwood -- quenching a 10-year gap, no less. Ballerini then followed with three more hit singles from her first record, The First Time: “Dibs,” “Peter Pan” and “Yeah Boy.” Her initial success refuted the infamous SaladGate debacle, in which a radio consultant dubbed women the “tomatoes” of the proverbial country radio salad (with men as the watery, flavorless lettuce). When you dig deeper into Ballerini’s work, her songwriting, especially on such standouts as “Secondhand Smoke” and “Stilettos,” contains a somber “Wheel of the World” resonance.

The post-Underwood class includes a rather diverse swath of today’s most promising: Mickey Guyton, Stephanie Quayle, Danielle Bradbery, Mary Sarah, Maggie Rose, Olivia Lane, Brooke Eden, Jessie James Decker, Leah Turner, Rachele Lynae and Logan Brill. Picking up where Underwood left off, the future of country is bright.

Underwood is reportedly working on her next album. She might have taken most of 2017 off to tend to family affairs and build her Calia sportswear empire, but her voice is ever-present. From songs like “Wasted,” “Blown Away,” “Something in the Water” and “Dirty Laundry,” she continues to be unmarred by the industry, as well as forward thinking and adventurous in her material. While expanding the limits of what country music is, she keeps her fingers intertwined with the fabric so delicately and proudly woven by her predecessors, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, and remains strong, independent, vulnerable and resilient.

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