Carrie Underwood Builds An Uncertain Future On Classic Past

Matthew Sperling

Carrie Underwood

"I'm too proud to drop keys," says country superstar as she prepares to release "The Blown Away Tour: Live" DVD

A blonde country singer in her late 20s sits nearly motionless, knees crossed while she belts out a from-the-gut power ballad. If you closed your eyes, you would think there were lots of physical acrobatics involved, but the reality is the woman simply has a vocal gift that transcends the bounds of normalcy.

That image exactly fits the way Tammy Wynette recorded "Stand by Your Man," sitting cross-legged on a stool during a Music Row recording session 45 years ago this month. But it also matches the portrait of Carrie Underwood during "I Know You Won't," the penultimate ballad delivered while sitting cross-legged on a bed as a man-made storm brews around her during her Blown Away tour.

The tour's March 3 date in Ontario, Calif., has been captured for posterity in a DVD, "The Blown Away Tour: Live," set for an Aug. 13 release by Sony Music Nashville. The project finds Underwood walking a line between two ideals that have played out through several generations in country music. While Wynette, for example, tended to simply show up, dress up and sing during her concerts, her contemporary Barbara Mandrell mixed acting, dancing and showmanship (she would play as many as seven instruments on one song), turning her multiple talents into a variety TV show.

During the 1990s, Trisha Yearwood assumed the belter role, leaning mightily on the strength of her songs and her voice to make a live impact, while Reba McEntire explored bigger productions—costume changes, ambitious sets and large stage props—to turn country into an extravagant, multimedia experience.

The Blown Away tour leans toward the McEntire model while combining both ideals. Underwood's songs are so challenging—rangy, high-pitched, lots of extended notes—that her Nashville appearance on Sept. 23, 2012, gave at least one concert-goer a sore throat, a weird form of sympathy pains. 

Meanwhile, the show used 575,000 LED lights and 23,000 feet of cable to create 172 different lighting colors. It also employed a 5,900-pound secondary stage that floated 150 feet above the audience on the main floor and exhausted 450 carbon dioxide tanks and 222 nitrogen tanks across 112 performances to create a confetti-strewn tornado effect at the conclusion of each show.

Not that Underwood is emulating anyone in particular.

"There really wasn't any person specifically that I wanted to be like," she says. "Growing up I actually went to a lot of rock concerts, and I loved the energy that rock concerts had. So [the Blown Away tour] was me wanting that and me wanting really cool light stuff happening around me. We tried to incorporate the best of all worlds into our little stage show."

Underwood says "little" facetiously, because there was nothing little about the production. She needed nine buses, 16 trucks and a crew of 89 people to reach more than 1 million fans with an effort that consumed 2,600 pounds of confetti. It was like a 1990s McEntire production on steroids.

"Carrie is, like Taylor [Swift], one of those artists that has followed in ­Reba's footprints in doing really theatrical shows, very huge productions," Country Music Hall of Fame writer/editor Michael McCall says. "She flies over her audience on an even bigger stage than the balcony sort of thing that Reba used. And it's a concert that's broken down into acts, like a Broadway play would be, which is what Reba did as well."

Beyond the production that surrounds her, though, Underwood's most impressive quality is the combination of power, precision and durability in what can only be characterized as a freakish vocal ability. An exacting pitch meter would be required to find a single flaw in the first six songs on the DVD, including such difficult titles as the verbal barrage "Good Girl," the glassy "I Told You So" and the high-pitched "Last Name." It would be easy to assume that Underwood rerecorded some of the vocals to achieve a super-human level of perfection, except that the seventh song, "Temporary Home," has a froggy moment during the low notes in the open. Obviously, she didn't redo the performance—otherwise that passage would have been fixed—making the earlier sonic heroics that much more impressive.

"Nobody is perfect all the time," she allows, while insisting that overdubbing or rerecording was never an option. "It needs to be live if it's gonna be live."

Underwood's next assignment is the ultimate live challenge. She'll be tackling a classic musical, playing Maria Von Trapp in NBC's Dec. 5 presentation of "The Sound of Music." That undertaking—akin to McEntire doing "Annie Get Your Gun" or "South Pacific"—decidedly delays any thoughts about how to follow up the Blown Away album, which now has its fourth single, "See You Again," at radio.

"The Sound of Music" is "my entire fall," she says. "I'll be living in New York for a couple months. It's all live, so it is going to take a lot of rehearsals. It will be a couple of solid months working on it for one big night. And after that I feel like I can really buckle down and start working on the next album."

How Underwood follows Blown Away and the accompanying tour is a point of curiosity. She created a faux twister in an arena and documented it on the DVD. Does she try to top it? Does she try to match the level of production, but in a completely different way? Does she do a 180-degree turn and present a Wynette-like show that downplays production and hyper-focuses on vocals?

"I don't want it to get too bogged down with gadgets," Underwood says. "This [production] was as full as it could be. If we added anything else, it would be too much. I haven't thought about it much because I don't know what the next album is going to sound like, but I like just standing there and singing, too. I may take a different approach, a more simple approach on the next one, I don't know."

If her short-term expectations are hazy, imagine Underwood several decades down the road. Country artists often speak in terms of building 30-year careers. But Underwood's songs are so consistently challenging, it's difficult to picture her being able to belt at such a high intensity for 90-120 minutes at age 55 or 60. She hasn't a clue how that will work.

"I'm too proud to drop keys," she insists. "I won't do it. Maybe the older I get, I'll write some songs in lower keys so it'll be easier. I've always been pretty good as far as stamina onstage. So hopefully, God willing, that will keep the way it's been. I try to take care of myself. That's all. Being able to work out and stay physically strong is important... So far, it's worked for me. I'm just blessed at being able to be loud for long periods of time."