Carrie Un­der­wood man­ages to soar un­der the radar

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY EMILY YAHR

Carrie Un­der­wood has a voice ca­pa­ble of stun­ning peo­ple into si­lence. It’s a voice that launched the coun­try singer to su­per­star sta­tus not long af­ter she ap­peared on “Amer­i­can Idol” a decade ago and judge Si­mon Cow­ell told her, “Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other pre­vi­ous ‘Idol’ win­ner.”

Cow­ell proved prophetic. About 15.3 mil­lion in U.S. al­bum sales later, Un­der­wood shat­tered any ex­pec­ta­tion of start­ing out on a re­al­ity singing com­pe­ti­tion. Not only does she reg­u­larly sell out are­nas and scoop up Gram­mys, she’s be­come a pro­lific Nashville song­writer in her own right, with co-writ­ing cred­its on half of her 21 No. 1 hits. She co-wrote the ma­jor­ity of her fifth stu­dio al­bum, “Sto­ry­teller,” out Oct. 23, in­clud­ing her cur­rent top 10 sin­gle, “Smoke Break.”

Yet with all the ac­co­lades, Un­der­wood, 32, still some­how flies un­der the radar. With

29 mil­lion dig­i­tal sin­gles sold, for ex­am­ple, she sits be­hind Ri­hanna (100 mil­lion), Tay­lor Swift (93.5 mil­lion) and Kanye West (47.5 mil­lion), but ahead of Nicki Minaj (25 mil­lion), Bey­oncé (24 mil­lion) and Adele (22 mil­lion) — yet she at­tracts a frac­tion of the pop cul­ture frenzy. Why is that?

Maybe she’s just not po­lar­iz­ing enough. (When’s the last time you can re­mem­ber a “Carrie Un­der­wood con­tro­versy”?) Maybe it’s her nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion as an in­tro­vert to shy away from the spot­light. Or, maybe it just looks as if her fairy-tale life and suc­cess have come to her so eas­ily that some peo­ple don’t think to give her enough credit.

Even now, Un­der­wood says that oc­ca­sion­ally — like when she’s on an awards show stage in front of her peers — self-con­scious thoughts float through her mind. Though at this point, she hosts the shows (she will co-host the Coun­try Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion Awards with Brad Pais­ley for the eighth time Nov. 4). She feels the need to prove that even if she didn’t spend years scrap­ing by as an un­known singer, she still be­longs. At the same time, though, when talk­ing about crit­i­cism of her “easy” re­al­ity TV jour­ney, she de­scribes it as, “I don’t know — a lit­tle sex­ist?”

“What was I sup­posed to do?” Un­der­wood asks of her ca­reer path, which she was un­likely to pur­sue if it meant play­ing by her­self in bars and clubs on the road. “That’s not my M.O. That would never be my style to get here, any­way.”

Af­ter all, singing pro­fes­sion­ally wasn’t ac­tu­ally her goal. Grow­ing up on a farm in small-town Ok­la­homa, Un­der­wood had never even been on an air­plane when she ar­rived at the “Idol” au­di­tions in St. Louis in 2004 as a 21-year-old col­lege se­nior. She knew she could sing; she per­formed in beauty pageants and tal­ent shows, al­most sign­ing a record deal as a teenager. It didn’t work out, so she went to North­east­ern State Univer­sity and ma­jored in broad­cast jour­nal­ism with ev­ery in­ten­tion of go­ing on to a “prac­ti­cal” job.

Those plans evap­o­rated when she wowed the “Idol” judges with Bon­nie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” at her first au­di­tion and charmed them with an anec­dote about play­ing quar­ter­back for her soror­ity’s flag foot­ball team. They com­pared her to Martina McBride, and she sailed through the next round. Even as the judges and view­ers cri­tiqued her lack of stage pres­ence over the next sev­eral months, it was the least sur­pris­ing “Idol” win ever.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I would not have made it here, with­out the path of try­ing out for ‘Amer­i­can Idol’ and with­out all of that hap­pen­ing,” Un­der­wood said by phone from Nashville of the once-mighty com­pe­ti­tion show, air­ing its fi­nal sea­son next year amid sink­ing rat­ings.

Un­like some re­al­ity com­peti­tors who sput­ter out, Un­der­wood moved to Nashville and her ca­reer ex­ploded. Five months af­ter she was crowned “Idol” win­ner, she re­leased “Je­sus, Take the Wheel,” writ­ten by Hil­lary Lind­sey, Brett James and Gordie Samp­son. The song went No. 1 and fu­eled Un­der­wood’s smash 2005 de­but al­bum, “Some Hearts,” which went sev­en­times plat­inum.

The ex­pe­ri­ence also started a lu­cra­tive part­ner­ship with Lind­sey. The two first clicked at a Nashville song­writ­ing camp where writ­ers were in­vited to pitch Un­der­wood songs for her first record. Lind­sey re­mem­bers Un­der­wood of­fer­ing her in­put, but Un­der­wood didn’t start co-writ­ing songs her­self un­til the fol­low­ing year. To­gether with song­writer Luke Laird, they holed up in her la­bel’s Mu­sic Row of­fices and wrote “So Small” and “Last Name”; both turned into No. 1 hits on her sopho­more al­bum.

“Carrie has grown so much as a writer,” said Lind­sey, who has nine co-writes on “Sto­ry­teller.” Along with James and a few oth­ers, they penned much of the record at Un­der­wood’s re­mote Ten­nessee cabin. “She’s so smart and re­ally ar­tic­u­late . . . and, clearly, she can sing the song­book. Her lyrics for sure have got­ten so much stronger, and they were al­ready strong. You be­come more com­fort­able with your­self and in your skin, the more you write.”

Un­der­wood casts a sweet yet tough per­sona, pas­sion­ate about top­ics in­clud­ing an­i­mal rights, and speaks of­ten about her Chris­tian faith. (Af­ter her much-ma­ligned role as Sis­ter Maria in NBC’s live “Sound of Mu­sic,” she tweeted that “mean peo­ple need Je­sus.”) She’s the ev­ery­day wife and mom with a goofy sense of hu­mor, such as her silly CMA Awards skits. She mar­ried Nashville Preda­tors hockey player Mike Fisher in 2010, and they have a 7-month-old son, Isa­iah. “I think peo­ple at this point know we’re bor­ing,” she of­fers as the rea­son she doesn’t show up a lot in the tabloids. “We’re a nor­mal cou­ple . . . and we make it a point to raise Isa­iah as just a nor­mal kid.”

The char­ac­ters in her songs, how­ever, tell very dif­fer­ent sto­ries.

Take “Be­fore He Cheats,” about a woman tak­ing a bat to an un­faith­ful boyfriend’s car; or “Two Black Cadil­lacs,” in which a wife and mis­tress team up to kill the phi­lan­der­ing hus­band. On her new al­bum, there’s “Church Bells,” about an abused woman get­ting re­venge; “Dirty Laun­dry,” cen­tered on a lady who dis­cov­ers her hus­band’s af­fair while wash­ing his clothes; and “Choctaw County Af­fair,” about a mys­te­ri­ous love tri­an­gle. Un­der­wood en­joys writ­ing those dark songs, call­ing them “mini-movies.”

“I love strong women. I feel like in the char­ac­ters in the sto­ries, when they’re pushed to their break­ing point and they end up win­ning, they fight back,” Un­der­wood said. “I love that as­pect. A lot of times, you don’t make them strong when you’re telling a story like that, un­til they’re pushed. Usu­ally bad stuff has to hap­pen be­fore they reach that point.”

It’s an es­pe­cially fas­ci­nat­ing di­chotomy con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent trends in the male-dom­i­nated coun­try mu­sic genre, where women are of­ten sup­port­ing char­ac­ters: in the pas­sen­ger seat, rid­ing shot­gun with their long, tan legs in cut­off jeans on the dash­board. Un­der­wood, fre­quently cited along­side Mi­randa Lam­bert as the only fe­male su­per­stars left in coun­try mu­sic, says while it’s clear many lis­ten­ers love that type of mu­sic, she ob­vi­ously has a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

“I mean, it’s not my style, but you can’t blame an artist or song­writ­ers for do­ing what they do,” Un­der­wood said. “I feel like, I hope a few artists here and there step up and do some­thing dif­fer­ent, which I hope is what we’ve done. And there’s other peo­ple who do that as well.”

“Sto­ry­teller” also has a softer side, such as “The Girl You Think I Am,” which Un­der­wood wrote for her dad – and which caused many tears dur­ing the writ­ing ses­sion with Lind­sey and David Hodges. Then there’s the quiet fi­nal track, “What I Never Knew I Al­ways Wanted,” Un­der­wood’s ode to life with her baby son.

If his­tory is any in­di­ca­tion, any song Un­der­wood re­leases will in­evitably rocket up the coun­try charts. Al­though seem­ingly a nat­u­ral for the pop world, Un­der­wood has never felt any de­sire to pull a Swift and cross over to a dif­fer­ent genre. In­stead, she hopes the au­di­ences will con­tinue to fol­low her in Nashville, where she can help raise the pro­file of other fe­male artists strug­gling to break through.

“I feel thank­ful and grate­ful that I do get played on the ra­dio, and that I get to head­line shows and peo­ple come to see them. I think it’s been a great con­ver­sa­tion within the past year as far as fe­males in coun­try mu­sic,” Un­der­wood said of the muchdis­cussed lack of women on coun­try ra­dio. “So, hope­fully, be­cause of that con­ver­sa­tion, now some change will hap­pen and more ladies will get a chance. Be­cause they’re out here. And they’re ta­lented and amaz­ing and beau­ti­ful and, yeah — they’re out there.”

With 29 mil­lion dig­i­tal sin­gles sold, she sits ahead of Bey­oncé and Adele — yet she at­tracts a frac­tion of the pop cul­ture frenzy. Why is that?



ABOVE: Carrie Un­der­wood’s fifth stu­dio al­bum, “Sto­ry­teller,” out Oct. 23, in­cludes the cur­rent top 10 sin­gle “Smoke Break.” RIGHT: Un­der­wood per­forms at a ben­e­fit con­cert for the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame and Mu­seum on Oct. 6 in New York.

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