Over the past two years, Carrie Underwood has released some of her most inspirational music to date, with the release of her first holiday album, My Gift, in 2020 and her first gospel album, My Savior, last year. My Savior netted Underwood her first Grammy win in the best roots gospel album category, bringing her total Grammy wins to eight.
On Friday, the seven-time CMA Award winner releases Denim & Rhinestones, Underwood’s first country project since 2018’s Cry Pretty — and judging by recent releases “Ghost Story” and “Crazy Angels,” Underwood has plenty more top-notch story songs in her arsenal, but she’s also ready to party.
The release of Denim & Rhinestones coincides with this year’s CMA Fest, which marks its return to the heart of downtown Nashville after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus. Underwood will perform during CMA Fest on Saturday at Nissan Stadium.
Underwood and her team took advantage of the timing — and the upbeat, dance-worthy vibes throughout the album — by launching The Denim & Rhinestones Experience, a pop-up exhibit that is open to the public, and features photo backdrops that tie in with songs from the album, including “Ghost Story” (a floral swing), “Pink Champagne” (a pink-hued “bubble” ball pit) and “Crazy Angels” (feathered angel wings). The exhibit, which runs Friday and Saturday at The Historic Bell Tower in Nashville, also features displays of some of Underwood’s dresses from her recent awards show performances, as well as a retail boutique.
“There’s so many fans in town and we wanted to meet them where they are,” Underwood told Billboard during an interview at The Bell Tower prior to the exhibit’s opening. “We have denim backdrops and they can buy merch and bling out their cups. Obviously, we have photo [areas] that people can take photos in, because it’s all about the ‘Gram, right?”
Underwood says the “Crazy Angels” backdrop is a personal favorite. “The angel wings are cool,” she says. “I took my picture up there earlier, and it was so fun.”
As she gears up for the release of Denim & Rhinestones, Underwood spoke with Billboard about the new album, her upcoming tour, how a hobby inspired a song on the project, and how that Stagecoach collaboration with Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose happened.
You worked again with writer-producer David Garcia on this album and it has such a fun, retro vibe. What was your vision for the album going into it?
I wanted to have fun from the get-go. That was definitely mission number one. With some other albums, it took me writing for a while before I figured out where the album’s gonna go. It’s got a lot of vintage sparkle. It’s not solidly throwback, but we have a couple of songs that are a little more ’70s feel and some that are in the ’80s pop world and some ’90s rock stuff, and obviously country. But we wanted to have music that was fun and felt good.
You don’t do a lot of love songs, but there are a few on this album.
We have the love trifecta: “Faster,” “Wanted Woman” and “Pink Champagne.” On “Wanted Woman,” [songwriter] Josh Miller had the title, and I thought the line “you make me feel like a wanted woman” was a cool way to see the title. You hear the title and you think of some super-country, wanted by the law feel. And that’s not what it is at all. It’s fresh and we call it the roller-skating song. It’s just fun and carefree.
“Crazy Angels” feels like a perfect summer song.
That was one of the last songs — if not the very last song — to come sliding in at the end. I had written with Lydia Vaughan and David a bit for this album, and Lydia was a co-writer on “If I Didn’t Love You” with [Jason] Aldean. I love working with talented females. We wrote quite a few songs, and that was one that was undeniable. It has kind of some Pat Benatar vibes on it.
“Garden” closes out the album with a more reflective tone.
We wrote “Wanted Woman” and “Garden” in the same day. Josh Miller and I had written together on quite a few occasions, and we were talking about our hobbies. I’ve really gotten into gardening the past few years, and I pine over it, I plan it, think about it, work in there. I’m literally in my garden every single day. Right now, I have lots of tomatoes, bell peppers, snap peas, broccoli, onions, zucchini, yellow squash, watermelon, honeydew melon — a lot of things.
You’ve got a whole grocery store in your yard.
I do! That’s the point. We were talking about that and how many life lessons are there in the garden and how soul-filling it is to be there. He had some lyrics and was like,” If you reap what you sow/ What kind of garden would you grow?,” and we went from there.
Jimmie Allen will join you on your Denim & Rhinestones Tour when it launches in October. Could there be a collaboration between you at some point?
I definitely hope so. Usually when we’re out on the road with somebody, we try to have moments to sing together and have that moment for ourselves, but also for everyone who is coming to see us. But I definitely respect him as an artist and I think he’s a great addition to the tour.
You recently wrapped your Las Vegas residency for this year. Is there anything you took away from that residency that you will bring to the Denim & Rhinestones Tour?
I love how the Vegas residency is a show, not a concert. There’s a storyline, musically, in how everything is presented, and I have a lot of songs that are cinematic in nature. I learned a lot being in Vegas, and I think this tour is going to be easier on the production side and there’s more of a clear lane. With a song like “Pink Champagne,” you don’t have to think about, “Oh, what color do we make the lighting?” But we will have a lot of moments in the show, which will be a lot of fun.
Your Stagecoach headlining performance was an incredible production. How did you approach creating that moment?
With Stagecoach, you see how other genres treat Coachella and how it’s this big event, a once-in-a-lifetime event. People will say, “I was at Coachella and this amazing moment happened.” It’s a cultural event, and I was wondering why we don’t treat Stagecoach a little more like that. So that was my mission. I wanted to make it where people felt like, “Oh my gosh, I saw her there and it was incredible.” And we’ve all been cooped up for a little while, right? So I wanted to make sure it felt like a party.
During your performance at Stagecoach, you welcomed Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. How did that collaboration come about?
Axl was my pinnacle moment, the one that I’ve been waiting almost my whole life for. I had previously asked him about other things, if he would be interested in singing, and it never quite panned out. So I like to think I just wore him down. [Laughs] I wrote him a letter — an email — and explained why I really wanted to sing with him. I was like, “You are such an influence on me and my music. I think it would be wonderful and we would burn the stage down together.” And he finally said yes. At the end of my letter, I was like, “If you can’t do it this time, I understand, but I will keep asking.”
Have you ever thought about doing like a rock album or anything more in the rock space?
I love having my moments and I love having my influences and I love it when I can have those influences work their way out or things that I do. But I’m a country girl. I can’t imagine myself making any kind of switch. I like having flavors to my music, or having those moments where I get to collaborate with somebody that I adore and respect.