Superstar Tourism

An Interview with Carrie Underwood

by Nikki Tranter


PopMatters Books Editor

Carrie Underwood’s performance at November’s Country Music Association Awards was strong, convincing, and left much of the legend-filled audience eager for more. At least, that’s what the rousing applause suggested. Then again, they might have simply been roaring in response to Underwood’s eye-popping red dress, but either way, the girl made her statement. Like Trisha Yearwood a decade and a half before her, she sang superbly and looked every bit country’s new queen. Her performance that night, short as it was, no doubt helped speed her debut CD, Some Hearts, to the top of the pop charts and into the history books as the highest selling country album by a debut artist since such things were recorded.

So, how did it really feel for the girl from Checotah, Oklahoma, an unknown university student only year ago, to be on the CMA stage, singing to her idols? “I think I blacked out,” she tells PopMatters, with a charming, tinkly chuckle that accompanies many of her statements. “I don’t really remember much.”

Referenced CD:
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts

US: 15 November 2005
UK: 12 December 2005

Even with little memory of that defining moment, it’s among the highlights of her post-American Idol year. This year’s winner, Underwood gave Idol its first taste of real taste of authentic chick-country. Her consistent performances and unaffected sweetness made her an early frontrunner to take out the coveted record-deal prize. Not an easy feat when you consider the level of extraordinary talent contained in 2005’s top 12. It appeared, though, that Idol voters this time around were quite over the pop and R&B that had dominated previous years and so kept two Southern-tinged performers—Underwood and runner-up, Bo Bice—until the very end. Idol judge Simon Cowell—admittedly confused by country music—was so enamored with Underwood that he not only forecast her victory early on, he also predicted she’d sell “more records than any other Idol”.

Time will tell on that last point, but so far she’s hardly slacking on the charts, even giving Madonna a brief run for her money. Not to mention her very own idols—Yearwood, Martina McBride, and Reba McEntire, each with new albums out in time for Christmas. Underwood, though, is yet to consider herself one of the crowd among her peers. “I definitely don’t feel like I deserve to be there,” she says, noting that, though she doesn’t follow sales figures specifically, she likes to know her record is doing well. Perhaps her reluctance to involve herself in the numbers part of her career has something to do with her feeling “like a tourist” in the business. At an industry event like the CMAs, Underwood finds herself collecting memories rather than making contacts. “I keep my camera with me everywhere I go,” she says. “I try not to be too annoying with it.”

Either Underwood is unaware of her lasting potential, or she’s smart enough to know that in today’s market, there’s an element of necessity in taking what you can from your success before stepping aside and letting the new fad, fashion, or pretty face on through. As far as fads go, though, there’s something about Carrie—as Cowell suggested—that gives one the impression she might just outlast all her fellow Idols. One clear advantage Carrie has over Kelly, Ruben, and Fantasia, is her genre and just how neatly she fits into it. Not nearly as unforgiving as its pop/rock cousin, country is a genre in which success is rarely predicated upon culture shifts and fashion trends. The Traditional vs. Mainstream authenticity battle still exists within the genre, but, at its heart, country music is about two things—the voice and the story. Fuse them effectively and magic happens. Whether the resulting sound is popular or time-honored, the emotional authenticity of those key elements will decide an artist’s success. Even a madly popped-out country performer like Keith Urban, for example, shakes his ass like he means it, and listeners respond.

With Some Hearts, Underwood and her producers have found just the right sound for her. The production is top notch, but the writing and Underwood’s enormous voice are so absolutely suited that honesty and heart pour from the songs. Underwood was involved in the composition of at least one of the album’s tracks, the autobiographical “I Ain’t in Checotah Anymore”—while the remaining songs she selected during a writer’s retreat organized for her by 19 Entertainment boss and Idol creator, Simon Fuller. Underwood says the retreat was eye opening, giving her insight into how writers and producers work. Her job, for the most part, was to listen to songs—lots and lots of songs. “I got to meet a whole lot of writers from the Nashville area,” she says. “After that it was just a process of listening to songs all the time—on my days off and the extra time that I had on the [American Idol] tour, me and a few other people would sit down and go through songs.”

Whatever stuck out, whatever she liked, Underwood had the option of recording. Her selections represent her journey from small town Oklahoma to instant stardom’s glittery heights. Underwood is aware of the album’s clear thread, but says she wasn’t deliberately seeking a theme. “I wasn’t purposely going for that. I’d listen to a song and [if] I felt a connection with it [I’d] go with it. A few of them ended up having the same thing, but it certainly wasn’t intentional.” Those themes are mainly concerned with progression—growing up, moving on, and generally enjoying the shift between adolescence and adulthood. A few songs—notably “The Night Before (Life Goes On)”—are rooted in small town life and the struggles involved in leaving it behind. “Lessons Learned”, the album’s best track, is another one that summarizes the record’s thematic points—“The past can’t be rewritten,” Underwood sings. “You get the life you’re given . . . Some pages turned, some bridges burned, / But there were lessons learned”.

In light of these themes, Carrie’s own background adds the necessary authenticity. The songs, she says, allow her to draw on divergent areas of her personality. “Happy songs, sad song, and angry songs—it’s cool to have a lot of contrast. It’s fun to play all those roles.” One of those roles is that of spurned girlfriend in the deliciously spiteful “Before He Cheats”, which has stirred some controversy—nothing too serious, but waves enough for Underwood to add a disclaimer about it to her website. The song features Underwood taking severe revenge on an unfaithful boyfriend by murdering his most prized possession:

Well, I dug my key into the side
Of his pretty little souped-up Four Wheel Drive,
Carved my name into his leather seats.
I took a Louisville Slugger to both headlights,
Slashed a hole in all four tires.
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.

Yikes. Underwood growls out the sarcasm and paranoia here. It’s the only time on the CD that Sweet Carrie becomes Raging Carrie. Her fleeting feistiness draws comparisons to McBride’s debut featuring “Independence Day”, or Reba’s It’s Your Call with “Take it Back”. She gets to work her vocals and her build some welcome, sweetness-interrupting attitude. And it helps that Raging Carrie knows of what she speaks. “You know,” she says, the chuckle back in her voice. “I’ve been cheated on. It’s good for me to get out my frustrations.”

Carrie’s roles on Some Hearts are well suited to her. She’s an observer on “The Night Before (Life Goes On)”, daughter on “Don’t Forget to Remember”, storyteller on “Jesus, Take the Wheel”, girlfriend on “I Just Can’t Live a Lie”, and emerging woman on “Lessons Learned”. All the requisite roles for a country record; there’s nothing at all here beyond her experience or out of her age range. Which is to say, she’s not trying to convince anyone she knows about long lost love or lingering heartache. She’s a free-spirited girl learning about life. These are emotions and experiences she’s acquainted with. Singing what you know, she says, is part of what draws people to country music. “Country music,” she says, “is honest. It’s real emotion that real people relate to.”

Few emerging artists in any genre get access to its best writers and producers on their first recording, and with her Idol-branding firmly in place to ensure big interest and big business, Carrie’s been handed the best of the best and it shows. If she’s as cluey about song selection in the future as she is here, there’s little doubt she’ll continue to sell bucket-loads of CDs. Pop stars fade, remember—country stars never go away. Well, hardly ever. Especially cute ones. And Underwood has the sense to listen to her elders—her touristy jaunts have seen her put her journalism degree to use, finding out from others in the business what it takes to obtain that staying power. The guys from Rascal Flatts, she says, have been particularly helpful as she finds her footing. “They’ve been great to me. It’s good to know a lot of these people are really nice. As far as their music goes, they’re people that have had really successful careers and they’ve done it right, you know? You learn what gets you further and what can get you thrown out.”

So, will Underwood be writing her own songs in the future? “I honestly never thought I would be in a position to actually be able to sing my own songs, so I never really worried about it. It’s definitely something I would like to be more involved with.”

She’s not, however, concerned that writing her own material will heighten her industry cred. Though she’s aware the Idol tag carries with it notions of processed artistry, she’s confident she’ll shatter such stereotyping as her career progresses—provided, of course, she can step out of tourist-mode. She says that immediately following her Idol win, she fought to be taken seriously, but feels her CMA performance, other live television appearances, and the genuine appeal of Some Hearts have helped her win over the skeptics. “Through different things I’ve done I’ve proven myself a little more. Performing at the CMAs, [especially]. I feel like I did have to prove my credibility. I don’t mind [the Idol association] at all. It gave me my shot. I would never have even gotten close to where I am without it. I’m getting to start out where no new artist gets to start out. I have the best producers and the best songs—the best everything. I’m grateful for that and I’ll keep it for the rest of my life.”

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