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Carrie Underwood’s Wild Ride
By Peter Cronin    © 2006 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.

In the year since she beat out blue-eyed soul shouter Bo Bice to emerge victorious as the 2005 American Idol, Carrie Underwood hasn’t had a whole lot of time to savor her victory. As demanding and life-changing as the “Idol” experience was for Underwood, it was only a small taste of what was to come as her life became an endless series of press interviews, TV appearances, photo shoots, awards shows, concerts and coast-to-coast travel. And then she made a record. Released in November 2005 and propelled by its chart-topping leadoff single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel” (six weeks at No. 1), Underwood’s debut album, Some Hearts, quickly became the fastest triple-Platinum female Country debut in history, spending a phenomenal 15 weeks at the top of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. No doubt about it: for this 23-year-old singer from Checotah, Okla., the past 12 months have been one wild ride. 

“I think the only word that I can say is, Wow!” Underwood enthused at a recent triple-Platinum celebration thrown by her label, 19 Recordings/Arista Nashville. There’s a lot to celebrate. Underwood’s is the kind of out-of-the-box success that hits Music Row every once in awhile, boosting percentages and providing the Country format with a much-needed shot in the arm. In other words, everybody’s talking about Underwood. They may be debating her pop leanings or her reality-TV beginnings, but there’s one thing they all say: This girl can really sing. That is made crystal clear with every one of Underwood’s incredibly poised and pitch-perfect live performances. While she’s glad her contest days are behind her, Underwood is quick to give some of the credit for her “overnight” success to the sink-or-swim ethic of “American Idol.”

“It was basically like a boot camp,” she said. “There was nobody to tell me what I should sing, or what to do, and being away from my friends and family, pretty much on my own, I had to grow up. If I could survive that and not go crazy then I could survive everything that followed. It so prepared me for what I do now.”

Immediately following her “Idol” win, Underwood was hustled into the studio to record the contest-winning power ballad, “Inside Your Heaven.” The single debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart and became the best-selling song of 2005. While the track displayed her stunning vocal chops in a big pop setting, Underwood insisted on recording a vocally challenging Martina McBride classic for the B-side.

“I think ‘Inside Your Heaven’ is a good song, but I didn’t choose it,” she stated. “That’s why we put ‘Independence Day’ on the back, because we don’t want to confuse everybody. I like to try new things, but I’m a Country girl and that’s the kind of music that I made it clear I wanted to sing.”

“Carrie from the very beginning always made the point that she was a Country singer,” said SONY BMG Nashville Chairman Joe Galante. “She took a risk by doing that because it’s obvious that Simon Cowell is not a fan of the music — but that is who she is. She is going to have a long and successful career here — and that is going to be a big shot for everyone in Country Music!”

Growing up in a fairly typical but non-musical family in small town Oklahoma, Underwood was nonetheless exposed to all kinds of music in all kinds of places.

“We’d take car trips and my parents always had it on the oldies station,” she said. “I got a lot of Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Denver and all that. My sisters were teenagers when I was growing up and they were in their rebellious stage, so I got a lot of ‘80s rock music out of them. But being from Oklahoma, Country Music was always playing everywhere. In every store you went into, if there was a radio on, 95-percent of the time it was a Country station. So it was something that had a lot of influence on me.”

Songs including “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and the follow-up single, “Don’t Forget to Remember Me,” are powered by Underwood’s undeniably pure Country sensibility, but deeper album cuts “We’re Young and Beautiful” and her current single, “Before He Cheats,” showcase the singer’s more mischievous and sassy side.

“I think that has to do with what I grew up with,” she said. “Dann Huff, who was one of the producers of my album, without me saying anything said, ‘Do you listen to a lot of rock music?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I like it.’ And he was like, ‘I can tell. A lot of choices you make vocally are choices that a person with a more rock edge would choose.’”

She may be comfortable with her rocking side, and she does possess one of those voices that can go just about anywhere, but when it came time to decide where she wanted to make her music, where she lived, for Underwood there was no hesitation. 

“I’m sure a lot of meetings were held to try to figure out a way to market me,” she said.” But my management company made it very clear that I was going to sing Country Music and that’s what I wanted. I love all kinds of music, but I feel like I fit with Country and that’s the kind of music I love.”

Preparing to record her debut, Underwood went directly to the heart of Nashville’s creative songwriting community. Her management team set up a “retreat” at Nashville’s Karian Studios, giving Underwood a chance to mingle and even co-write with some of Music Row’s biggest hitmakers. Songwriters including Brett James, Hillary Lindsey and Rivers Rutherford took the time to get to know the person behind the image and custom-crafted songs to reflect Underwood’s life and concerns, including one she co-wrote about her hometown.

“I wanted to meet the songwriters, get to know them and let them know the kind of album I wanted to make,” Underwood said. “They broke off into little groups and I’d bounce around from room to room and give suggestions and sing part of what they’d written. We even recorded some rough drafts right there in the studio. ‘I Ain’t In Checotah Anymore’ came from that time, and I co-wrote on another one that didn’t make the album. I can’t wait to get into the next one. I want to have a bigger hand in it and co-write on a lot more songs.”

Underwood has also been busy touring and getting to know her fellow Country artists, gaining some valuable advice along the way.

“The advice most people have given me is to take it all in,” Underwood said. “Don’t just go and go and go and not have fun with it. You’ve got to have fun.”

As hectic as things have gotten, Underwood is definitely enjoying the trip, and she makes a point of taking regular breaks, heading home to Checotah and to her alma mater, Northeastern State University in nearby Tahlequah, where she recently graduated Magna Cum Laude and where still loves to spend time with her old, reliable, pre-“Idol” friends. 

“I try to get home about once a month, so it’s not that bad,” she said. “I miss my family and my animals, but they’re always waiting for me when I get home. And a lot of my friends still go to college in Tahlequah, so I’ll go hang out with my sorority sisters for a few days. The people that knew me before still treat me the same … when we go out it’s a different story.”

As she reflects on all she’s learned and experienced in the past year, including being nominated for four CMA Awards (Horizon, Female Vocalist, Single and Music Video of the Year), and gets ready to perform at “The 40th Annual CMA Awards” in November, Underwood has her Country Music priorities perfectly straight.

“I like the intimacy of the studio and hearing how everything evolves from the demo to the finished product,” she said. “But there’s nothing like being in front of the fans. Especially now, they come to see me, and they give off a great energy. They’re happy to be there … and I’m happy they’re there.

On the Web: www.carrieunderwood.com

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