Underwood has earned a reputation for taking on dark scripts in her career: bashing an ex-boyfriend’s car in “Before He Cheats,” conveying a vengeful murder in “Two Black Cadillacs” and destroying a domestic horror chamber in “Blown Away.” The fact that those plots are so different from the woman singing them is part of the attraction.
“I think that makes it fun for her,” says co-writer Brett James (“Church Bells,” “I Hold On”). “Even her performance on the CMAs, she was sultry and sexy, and she’s so good at that.”
“Drinking Alone,” which Capitol Nashville released to terrestrial radio on Oct. 28, puts the character’s dangerous, provocative persona in a multigenre format: It’s essentially a country lyric encased in an R&B groove with a short arena-rock bridge. And it’s a song that played a huge role in shaping Cry Pretty, which became her sixth project to win favorite country album at the American Music Awards on Nov. 24. “Drinking” emerged from her first appointment with David Garcia (“Love Wins,” “Meant to Be”), who ended up co-producing all but one song on the album, with Underwood and co-writing six of its 13 tracks.
“It was what made me recognize very quickly that I wanted to work more with David,” she says of that first collaboration. “We’re the same age. I mean, we kind of grew up at the same time and have a lot in common as far as personality, and he’s such a great music guy and track guy, and I feel like I’m better at melody and lyrics. We just kind of filled in each other’s gaps musically.”
During the drive to that appointment at Underwood’s writing cabin outside of Nashville, James purposely aimed to create a sonic palette that she had not previously explored, and he arrived with a slow-boiling R&B groove in mind. Garcia introduced a musical idea he had been playing with — a spacious, arpeggiated guitar with soul overtones — and it all aligned from there.
“That was the first thing I played, which probably coincided with the thing that was going on — even though I didn’t know it — in Brett’s head,” says Garcia. “We listened to a few other things but kept going back to that first idea. And then it kind of came very quickly.”
Underwood introduced “Drinking Alone” from her reservoir of potential titles, and James twisted the hook into “drinking alone together.” That club-based idea lines up with a couple of 1980s traditional country gems — George Strait’s “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together” and the Moe Bandy/Becky Hobbs collaboration “Let’s Get Over Them Together” — though Underwood’s character sets a boundary those other titles did not, opening with the ground rules: “Let me make one thing clear/You can buy me a beer/But you ain’t taking me home.”
“I love that she was going to lay the rules out,” says Underwood. “You know, ‘This isn’t a thing, I’m not going home with you. Let’s just be here and be present and kind of get over our heartaches in the same space.’ ”
The two move from beer to whiskey to tequila, a mix that practically invites a hangover but also threatens to weaken both strangers’ defenses. James introduced “reposado” — a specific strain of tequila that has been aged longer than the standard form — into the lyric, requiring Underwood and likely a large cadre of casual drinkers to find a dictionary.
“We like to give people Google-able moments, expand some vocabularies,” she says with a laugh.
They embedded adaptable phrasing in “Drinking Alone.” The verses are generally choppy and staccato, and they break for a heartbeat into a syncopated section. But the chorus moves to a higher register with more fluid, held-out tones.
“It had a little bit of swag to it, which I thought was really fun,” observes Garcia. “At the same time, it’s one of those ones where she hits the big money notes at the end of it.”
As the day wrapped, Underwood landed on a seven-note “ooh, ooh, ooh” passage that became a signature lick for the intro and the close of the chorus.
“We were actually recording the demo,” recalls James. “She just kind of sang that for fun, and we were like, ‘That’s it. That’s our answer.’”
They recorded “Drinking Alone” at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Recording Studio, using some of the programmed elements from the demo underneath a live band that gave it a more sinister attitude, thanks to burning slides and mysterious stabs from keyboardist Dave Cohen and guitarists Rob McNelley and Tom Bukovac.
“There’s some really signature guitar stuff in the verses and on the intro — that kind of eerie-sounding guitar part that Rob McNelley came up with,” says Garcia. “Carrie and I looked at each other like, ‘Oh, that’s incredible.’ Those are the things that you’re hoping for.”
True to her real-life character, Underwood worked the vocals hard, pushing herself to capture emotional nuances even after Garcia thought she had nailed it. “Whatever the big note of the song is, she can do it 25 times and will say, ‘I could do it again if you need me to,’” notes Garcia.
Underwood did not know when she released Cry Pretty if “Drinking Alone” would become a single, but it garnered some of the heaviest responses among the new songs she performed during the tour, and it gave her a chance to further develop the look and feel of the woman in the song: flirtatious, commanding, boundary-pushing even as she professes to having self-control. The song is No. 42 in its fourth week on the Country Airplay chart.
“It was fun to perform live,” says Underwood, “and I feel like that’s always something to keep in mind. It’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to be probably singing this on award shows or TV shows at this time. What feels like it would be a good next step?’”
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