Sure, she’s a superstar. But in a lot of ways, Carrie Underwood is just like any other 25-year-old forging her path in life.
IS THERE ANYTHING CARRIE UNDERWOOD doesn’t have going for her? She’s got the talent: She breezed past thousands of hopefuls to claim the title of American Idol three years ago. She’s got the looks: She’s been voted to People magazine’s Most Beautiful list the past two years. And she’s got the accolades: She’s won a trio of Grammys and has sold millions of records worldwide. Yet, for someone so undeniably in, the 25-year-old superstar still has plenty of moments when she feels awkward and, frankly, a little out of her comfort zone.
Take, for instance, when she organized a songwriting retreat last year at the Ryman Auditorium in preparation for her second album. “On the second [album], we just had a lot more time,” says Underwood, calling in from the road. “I was able to slow things down and meet up with some of the people who wrote for the first album.” But she needed only to look around the historic theater and take stock of the caliber of writers to realize that she was a skosh out of her league. Underwood was determined to make this meeting work, though a star of her wattage didn’t need to prove herself by trying to help pen her own hits. Plenty of big-time country-music artists are content to sift through the mountain of Music Row offerings crafted by songwriting pros, select their favorites, and extend their fame.
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The second album would be different, she decided. She’d established herself as the fastest-selling debut country artist in Nielsen SoundScan history, with Some Hearts selling more than seven million copies. And although she’d been a team player with the first album, she’d also gained some experience asserting her will, like when she’d refused to make a poppier version of her hit “Before He Cheats,” which went on to be a huge crossover smash anyway. This time, she could do things exactly how she wanted to.
There was an obvious advantage to this writing retreat: Underwood would be able to write with people whose songs she had already sung on a successful album. They wrote songs that worked for her, in terms of what she liked and what her fans liked. But another benefit was less obvious: The songwriters would have her to guide them.
“They’re incredibly talented, but even they need direction sometimes,” Underwood says. “It’s not fair to say, ‘Hey, Carrie Underwood is working on a new album, so write for her.’ They don’t know me personally; they don’t know what direction I want to take the album. It was important to all of us to get together so I could hang out with them. And we started writing, and soon we had all these great songs. … It was awesome.”
Taking this approach to her new album, Carnival Ride, also helped Underwood prove the naysayers wrong. The critics who contend that she doesn’t have enough to do with crafting her albums (guilty on the first one, she’ll admit). The folks who say if a song doesn’t originate from living a broken-down, alcohol-fueled, honky-tonk life, then it ain’t country (fairly ridiculous).
“I think country music is cool in this way: It has its own little levels of music,” she says. “Whether you like more traditional or more contemporary people, like me and Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban, I think there really is something for everybody. So, instead of being upset at somebody -- oh, they’re too old; oh, they’re too new -- I think people should embrace that and be happy that country music is different. It’s different from person to person. It doesn’t feel like the same song being played over and over and over again on the radio.”
And while she’s aware that she can’t please everyone -- “Haters are going to hate,” she’s said before -- that’s not going to stop her from trying. Because Underwood feels she’s had to prove she belongs in the country-music scene ever since 2004, when she first made the eight-hour drive to audition for Idol. And even when she was selected at the audition, even when Simon Cowell later declared she would win in a cakewalk while there were still nearly a dozen contestants competing, she never saw herself as having a chance to live the American dream she’s currently drifting through.
UNDERWOOD IS EXPERIENCING another awkward moment. This time, it’s March, and she’s playing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She’s just finished her set, ending with the Randy Travis song “I Told You So,” which she covers on Carnival Ride, and the crowd is giving her a standing ovation. She’s been told to wait onstage after she’s finished, but she doesn’t know how to take the adulation. It embarrasses her to just stand there like a dork. She’s about to walk backstage, when she turns to see Travis himself, one of her idols, standing next to her.
“Oh my gosh!” she yelps. She hugs him, turns to the crowd, and says, “I thought you guys were standin’ up for me.”
They are, of course, a point Travis makes clear when he asks her on behalf of the Grand Ole Opry to be its newest member.
It’s a symbolic occasion, a traditional country icon reaching out to a contemporary star. That it’s Travis isn’t surprising -- besides covering his late-’80s hit, Underwood often talks about him being a favorite of hers and her father’s -- but it is a watershed moment in her career nonetheless, because too often the controversies that bubble around her (some media-created, some more legitimate) have to do with a disregard for the new crop of country stars, of which she is the most visible. (This was made most plain when Wynonna Judd, within earshot of Underwood, said that country music was becoming “vanilla.” The two have since reconciled.)
That it would take such an act to give her a measure of country-music street cred, as it were, seems even sillier when you consider Underwood’s life to date. She was born in 1983 and grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, on a nearly 200-acre patch of pasture and farmland. The pasture was on old rodeo grounds, where there was still a corral, a bathroom, and large overhead lights that had been used for nighttime shows but no longer worked. Her father raised cattle, which he sold at market to supplement his income from a paper mill, and her mother taught elementary school.
She is the youngest of three girls, the other two older than her by 13 and 10 years, respectively. Underwood’s sisters proved to be an important part of her musical influence, as they listened to ’80s pop when she was growing up. Her parents favored oldies. But most of her friends in Checotah listened to country music. So it was she who introduced her parents to the fiddle-rich music of folks like Randy Travis and Martina McBride.
Underwood would sing at church and festivals while she was growing up, but she wasn’t being groomed to be a child star. In fact, she liked to sing only at out-of-town events, because the local kids would make fun of her whenever she would sing in Checotah (which her mother sometimes convinced her to do). But that was just typical kid cruelty. Underwood says those days shaped more than just her singing style.
“I really appreciate where I grew up,” she says. “My parents were very poor, and they worked very hard to make sure that my sisters and I were never without. I never went without anything that I needed, ever. And just being able to run around outside -- I don’t think my parents ever had to worry about me. Being raised in a small community made me who I am.”
Underwood studied at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. After her sophomore year, she began performing at a summer festival at the university. The theater she sang in was small, with maybe 200 stiff, uncomfortable seats, but the experience gave her just enough confidence to think she should try out for something larger and to dream a little bigger.
One evening before the start of her final semester, she was at her parents’ home in Checotah, watching a newscast about American Idol tryouts in Cleveland. Hopefuls were camping out, and a reporter was interviewing those in line. On a whim, Underwood went to her computer to see how close to Checotah the traveling auditions would be held. The closest scheduled stop was St. Louis -- eight hours away.
Shoot, she thought. Not this year.
A little later, her mother approached her. “If you want to go, I’ll take you,” she offered. Underwood refused. “It’s dumb. They’ll cut me. There’s no way,” she said. “We would drive up there for nothing.” That night, she reconsidered. She was about to graduate. Realistically, once she got a job and moved away, she would never be in a position to try this again. It might be her only shot.
The audition was on a Sunday. She performed at her university Saturday night and then loaded into the car with her mother and a friend, driving all night to St. Louis. She arrived an hour before the eight a.m. check-in deadline and then waited all day before being called in. She belted out a Martina McBride song and was shocked when she was asked back the following day.
The crazy train of fame then whisked her away. What followed was her well-chronicled rise on America’s number one television show, where she won over fans as a small-town girl with a big voice and Disney-quality beauty. Even though she had a tough battle with Bo Bice in her quest to be named season four’s American Idol, show producer Cowell never had a doubt about the nation’s next country sensation. “It was like everyone that year had auditioned in black and white,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “She was the only one who came in full color.”
PERHAPS THE WORST (certainly the most frequent) uncomfortable moment for Carrie Underwood, The Girl, is seeing the way Carrie Underwood, The Celebrity, is treated in the media. True, people love a small-town success story. But it bothered her that the Idol folks somehow managed to air “every dumb thing” she said. “If you follow someone around 24 hours a day, seven days a week, chances are they’re going to say something stupid,” she says, laughing. She felt she was portrayed as the country bumpkin, when in reality, she was like any other college student. Her mother has a master’s degree, for crying out loud.
Also, there are the tacky accoutrements of fame all young stars are forced to endure: having your dating life played out in supermarket magazines for every young fan to see, having every reaction scrutinized by the press (so if you don’t wail when someone is kicked off American Idol, you’re branded as cold or unfeeling), and having gossip hounds take quotes out of context, thus eliminating sarcasm from your humor bank.
“It’s just a strange thing to get used to,” Underwood says. “And to read blatant lies is odd too. To have family members and friends calling me and saying, ‘I heard you did this,’ or, ‘[I heard] you’re dating so-and-so.’ It’s just like, no, it’s a lie. I read in a magazine one time -- this is how stupid it can get -- that my favorite food at a particular restaurant was something that had meat in it, and I’m like, if they had looked up anything, anybody who knows anything about me would have said, ‘No, it’s not. She’d never eat that: She’s a vegetarian.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it. I’m just trying to tolerate it and deal with it as best I can.
“It’s hard, though,” she continues. “I want people to like me. I’ve always been that way, so to have something negative, I automatically want to come out and defend myself, and sometimes I have to be reminded that it’s just going to make things worse if I do. So, you just kind of have to sit back and bite your tongue. I know the truth. I know what kind of person I am. I’m trying to be content in that and not really worry so much about what everybody else thinks.”
She’s focusing instead on controlling the parts of her career she can -- namely, her music. She began that right away, actually, with her first album. After her Idol victory, there was speculation that perhaps she would make a pop album. “I went to Nashville for the CMA Music Fest, and that was kind of a declaration of ‘this is where I want to be and this is what I’m doing.’ So, for any doubters who think I’m going to make a pop album: It’s not gonna happen.”
Following the festival, she willingly submitted to the folks who held her hand through the record-making process. She toured with big names, learning what she could from Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. (One thing she learned: When you’re on tour, do not watch Borat in a room full of men. You will be embarrassed.) She found a songwriter soul mate, Hillary Lindsey, a young woman who could write and talk about the same sort of emotions and problems Underwood encounters, which helped Underwood to make her second album more personal.
Now, with dozens of awards, millions of albums sold, and a growing acceptance from a diversified country-music fan base (not to mention the crossover appeal she has earned through her TV profile and the pop success of “Before He Cheats”), Underwood has managed to pull off the nearly impossible: overcoming the pressures of being an overnight sensation, growing a career steadily, and maturing as an artist.
“I still love to go home, still like to do normal things,” she says. “I live in Nashville, so I don’t have paparazzi following me around. I go to the grocery store. I go to the mall. I try to live my life like a normal person would, as best I still can.”
But when you’re Carrie Underwood, normal, of course, is a relative term. A few days after we spoke, she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Undoubtedly, she was squirming onstage, embarrassed from all the attention. But at the rate she’s skyrocketing, she’ll have to get used to it.