“God put us here on this carnival ride
We close our eyes never knowing
Where it will take us next”
–Wheel of the World
There is the whirlwind, and then there is the young woman at its center. The key to Carrie Underwood may lie in knowing that, three years down the road, the two remain separate. For all the awards, the record sales, the chart-topping hits, the non-stop schedule and the incessant media attention, Carrie remains firmly in touch with the shy Oklahoma college student she was before becoming a star. Through all of it, she retains a genuine likeability that, coupled with her enormous talent, goes a long way toward explaining the phenomenal nature of her success.
And it is indeed phenomenal, even when measured by the achievements of others who have found success as she did, via American Idol. The show’s co-creator and acerbic judge Simon Cowell had predicted during the competition that she would win and that she would outsell all of Idol’s previous winners. He was right on both counts. Carrie’s debut album, Some Hearts, is the biggest-selling American Idol album to date, selling more than 6 million records in the U.S. alone. Her debut CD, Some Hearts, released in 2005, has been the best-selling female country album of 2005, 2006 and 2007. Carrie hit #1 with every single she has released to date, and has won two Grammys as well as a host of trophies from the AMA, ACM, CMA, People’s Choice and Billboard, among many others.
Her own favorite metaphor for the journey, taken from the Hillary Lindsey/Chris Lindsey/Aimee Mayo song “Wheel Of The World,” which closes her eagerly awaited second album, has become the project’s title.
“This part of my life has been absolutely crazy,” she says, “and to think it all started from one little decision I made to get on that ride. That’s why Carnival Ride works as my album title, because it describes the wonderful craziness I’ve been through over the past couple of years.”
Carrie’s new album, Carnival Ride, vaulted to #1 atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums and all-genre Billboard 200 charts with mammoth first-week sales of 527,101 and also earned the highest first-week sales for any female artist in any genre at the time of release for 2007. Setting multiple chart records, Carnival Ride not only earned the best-selling first week of any country sophomore album since the inception of SoundScan, but also notched the largest country debut in digital album chart history, with digital sales of 44,928.
Some Hearts was a snapshot that captured a moment, dealing with coming of age and with establishing a foothold in a wider world. Its success speaks volumes about the attractiveness of its message and of the woman who delivered it. Carnival Ride, on the other hand, is a big-screen movie, wide-ranging in theme, cinematic in scope. It reflects Carrie’s increasing strength as a vocalist, her continuing emergence as a songwriter, and her growing maturity as an artist and a person.
“Last time,” she says, “I didn’t set out to talk about a specific thing. I just picked songs that reminded me of home and made me think, ‘Wow! I can relate to that,’ and by the end, there was a theme.” Taking a broader view this time, she drew on her instincts as a fan in selecting songs that range from the enchantingly light-hearted to the deeply inspiring.
“It’s a collection of songs I would want to hear on the radio,” she says, “and songs I want to sing. I really hope my fans will get a little bit more of me out of these songs.”
The presence of four songs co-written by Carrie will help them do just that. “All-American Girl” turns the story of a baby girl born to a man praying for a boy into a celebration of femininity. If there is a bit of autobiography in the song–Carrie is the youngest of three daughters–there is even more in “Crazy Dreams,” an ode to “long shots” and a celebration of the fact that “even crazy dreams come true,” something she knows better than almost anyone. “Last Name” is a bit of pure fun celebrating reckless abandon, and is one of two songs Carrie wrote with Hillary Lindsey. The other is the album’s first single, “So Small,” a song that announces the new project as a major step forward. With “So Small” Carrie focuses on what’s important in life and not worrying about the small things. It also focuses on the strength of her voice and personality, instilling it with freshness and relevance.
Lindsey, who co-wrote “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” and Carrie have become fast friends since meeting when a group of songwriters gathered at a songwriter retreat in Nashville after her Idol win to help Carrie write and select songs for Some Hearts. In addition to “Wheel Of The World” and the pair of songs she wrote with Carrie, Lindsey co-wrote “Get Out Of This Town,” a bit of upbeat restlessness, “Twisted,” about a relationship on the edge, and “Just A Dream,” a powerful song dealing with the effects of war on a young bride-to-be.
Carrie’s emergence as a songwriter on Carnival Ride is another of the album’s revelations. She brought together another group of top Nashville tunesmiths, including Brett James, Luke Laird, Kelley Lovelace, Aimee Mayo, Steve McEwan and others for a second writers’ retreat. This one held at the Ryman Auditorium, the most famous former home of the Grand Ole Opry, throwing herself into the creative process and expanding greatly her confidence as a songwriter and her depth as a creative force in modern country music.
The process of writing with and looking through the catalogs of the cream of Nashville songwriting helped make Carnival Ride the strong artistic statement it is.
“We had so many great songs to choose from it was really hard to narrow it down,” she says. “We set the bar really high. Songs that would be hits hands-down might not have made it onto the album because one was a teeny notch better.”
The strength of those songs helped propel the subsequent recording sessions.
“We really took the first part of the year to make sure we had the best material we could possibly find,” she says, “and then we went in every day to the studio, which is something I really love to do. It is a very controlled environment. Mark [Bright, her producer] is so easy to work with. He’ll encourage me to play around with vocal approaches because, at the end of the day, it’s my voice, and the song is something I’ll be doing on stage every night. He trusts the instincts I have and I trust him. That makes us a good team.”
Holding the entire package together is the passion and believability fans came to know and love on American Idol and which haven’t dimmed a bit. The combination grew out of a lifelong love of country music nurtured in her hometown of Checotah, Oklahoma.
“I had a very happy childhood full of the wonderful simple things that children love to do,” she says. “Growing up in the country, I enjoyed things like playing on dirt roads, climbing trees, catching little woodland creatures and, of course, singing.” She sang in church, then in grade school musicals and area talent shows, winning a savings bond here, a trophy there.
“After high school,” she says, “I pretty much gave up on the dream of singing. I had reached a point in my life where I had to be practical and prepare for my future in the ‘real world.'”
She attended Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, OK, where her sorority sisters at Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority worked to bring her out of her shell.
“They always tried to make me sing at everything,” she says, “but I was too embarrassed. During the summers I mustered up enough courage to sing at the Downtown Country show–a Branson-style show that included singing, dancing and comedy. It was mainly there that I learned what it was like to be in front of a crowd.”
She majored in broadcast journalism, her sights set on a career in television news. Then, in her senior year, she saw news reports of tryouts for American Idol’s 2005 season.
“People always told me that I should try out for the show, but I never thought I would be able to handle it.” When her mother offered to drive her to St. Louis for tryouts, though, she decided to go. That, of course, set in motion the whirlwind.
“I remember certain things–Saturday Night Live was really cool,” she says. “It was great to be added to the list of such great iconic artists who have performed on the show before. And of course, being on stage at the Grammys–that was an amazing moment. Who’d have thought? But each one runs together. I’d love to revel in the moment a little more sometimes.”
Still, it is a mark of Carrie’s level-headedness and determination that amid the demands of a star, she made it a goal to complete her college degree. Even among the madness of winning American Idol in May 2005, recording and launching her debut album in November 2005, she finished her credit hours and earned her B.A., graduating magna cum laude in May 2006. And while she has grown a little more accustomed to the elite circles in which she sometimes travels, now and then she can tap into the fan she has always been, as when she met Randy Travis not long ago.
“I’ve loved him ever since I was little,” she says. “So, it was kind of like, ‘Wow! This is the person I hoped would take home the awards when I watched as a little girl.’ It was kind of a crazy day and I guess my emotions were running a little high when I got to meet him. I met him and he was so nice, and I started crying. I never know what to do with people when they cry when meeting me, so I was thinking, ‘Gosh! I’m one of those people now! I’m being completely silly,’ but it was just the way it happened.” Her version of Travis’s hit “I Told You So” appears on Carnival Ride.
She appears on Brad Paisley’s album 5th Gear, joining him on “Oh Love” as her reach continues to expand. She recorded an original song called “Ever Ever After” for the Disney movie Enchanted and filmed a music video for the project. Her versatility is such that she has covered the work of artists including the Eagles and Bob Wills on the Grammys, Fleetwood Mac on Fashion Rocks, and she made the Pretenders’ classic “I’ll Stand By You” her own in a version that raised money for the “Idol Gives Back” charity effort. As part of her involvement, Carrie traveled to South Africa to visit and perform for schools, orphanages, hospices and health care centers in and around Johannesburg.
In 2006, Carrie performed over 150 shows on tour with Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley as well as headlining her own dates. She ended the year headlining a USO Tour during the Christmas holiday season and performing for U.S. troops in Kuwait and Iraq. Carrie, known for her love of animals, is also a major supporter of the Humane Society of the United States.
Such charitable efforts are yet another indication that, in a world where celebrity is often about mere self-indulgence, Carrie brings as much grace, style and substance to her life as she does to her stage performances. She has quickly become one of country music’s most effective and best-loved ambassadors, using her success as a springboard for good. Now, with the release of Carnival Ride, we are reminded once again of the rich talent that underlies that humanitarian spirit, and of the bottom line when it comes to the popularity of this remarkable young woman.