Just months removed from her May 2005 “American Idol” victory, Carrie Underwood spent a total of 11 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats.”
A third single, “Don’t Forget to Remember Me,” peaked at No. 2. Her debut album “Some Hearts” has sold 4.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, surpassing the debut efforts of the other four “Idol” winners including inaugural champ Kelly Clarkson.
Underwood, 23, spent the first part of 2006 on the road with Kenny Chesney, and the second half on tour with Brad Paisley. She has appeared on everything from “Late Show With David Letterman” to the “2006 Kennedy Center Honors.” And the year brought plenty of recognition for her success and talent. She picked up awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Assn. She also picked up a Grammy nomination.
WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING NOW IF YOU HADN’T WON “AMERICAN IDOL?”I would have a job somewhere, maybe in the journalism field or maybe broadcasting or something like that, but I’m not exactly sure, because I never got to that point.
DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE DONE WHAT OTHER ASPIRING COUNTRY ARTISTS DO -- MOVE TO NASHVILLE?No. It’s always something that I thought would be awesome to do, but I consider myself to be a very level-headed person and the chances of (succeeding that way) were slim to none. I was just planning on being in the real world and doing the best I could at my job. I probably wouldn’t have pursued music much further at all.
ARE YOU SURPRISED AT HOW WARMLY YOU’VE BEEN EMBRACED IN THE COUNTRY MUSIC COMMUNITY?I am. You are a little worried at first. You never know how people are going to take a newcomer, especially somebody who came into the scene unconventionally. Everybody has been great. Other artists, producers, people that I’ve worked with, people that I’ve met along the way -- they’ve all been very proud, I think, that somebody would represent country music on a national TV show (like “American Idol”).
YOU WON MAJOR AWARDS FROM THE ACADEMY OF COUNTRY MUSIC, THE COUNTRY MUSIC ASSN., NOT TO MENTION THE BILLBOARD AWARDS AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN, LAST YEAR. IS THERE ONE AWARD THAT REALLY STANDS OUT TO YOU?(The CMA) female vocalist of the year was really huge for me. It was really unexpected and really hard to believe. “American Idol,” that would have to be the best moment (because it) started all of this, but (the female vocalist award), that was a really awesome moment for me.
WAS THERE ANOTHER “WOW” MOMENT, MAYBE NOT AN AWARDS SHOW MOMENT, BUT ONE WHERE YOUR RECORD LABEL OR MANAGER CALLED YOU ON THE PHONE AND SAID, “THIS JUST HAPPENED?”Every time another platinum (certification comes in). It’s a pretty huge “wow” moment. When I was told about this last one, I was like, “Is it going to stop selling? What is going on here? This is crazy.” After 2 (million sold) I was really, really, really happy, and after three I was like, “Well, it couldn’t possibly sell any more.” Then four kind of came and went quickly, and I was like, “What is up?” People are still going out and buying this, it’s amazing. Then five, it’s just “wow.”
YOU REALLY HAVEN’T MADE IT UNTIL YOUR MUSIC GETS TURNED INTO A BLUEGRASS TRIBUTE ALBUM. HAVE YOU HEARD “PICKIN’ ON CARRIE UNDERWOOD?”That’s when you know (laughs). One of our band members actually went and got it when we were on the road, and we listened to it before a show. I said, “What is this?” (laughs) I listened to it and it was good.
WHERE ARE YOU IN REGARDS TO YOUR NEW RECORD?
We are still planning. We’re getting songs together and writing stuff in the next couple of weeks, because I didn’t really want to jump into anything until we knew what direction we were going in. We’re not recording until after the Grammys. Once that is done, I’ll have a lot more time to devote to the next album. (I’ll) get stuff from some writers and go into the studio and lay some stuff down and see what direction it’s going to head in.
ARE YOU GOING TO TAKE A MORE ACTIVE ROLE WITH THE SONGWRITING ON THIS NEW RECORD?I would like to. I’m very realistic about the whole situation. I know that some (artists) think they are really awesome writers and they are not -- I’m the opposite. I just want to go in and try, and if nothing more, I go in with the writers and they get a sense of what I would like to sing about. Even if I don’t have much of a hand in the writing process at all, even if I just have some ideas ... I’m looking forward to being more involved, but I’m very realistic that I might not be any good.
DID YOU WRITE SONGS GROWING UP?I didn’t. I never thought I’d ever be in a position to where I’d be able to use them, so it was something that I never really messed with too much. I wish I had now.
DO YOU HAVE ANY INTEREST IN RECORDING MUSIC OTHER THAN COUNTRY MUSIC?
If there were a great collaboration going on, I would definitely be interested, but I really, really like being a part of country music -- and hopefully they like having me --so I don’t have any intentions of trying anything else.
YOU MENTIONED COLLABORATION, AND YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY A FAN OF RASCAL FLATTS AND HAVE SUNG WITH THE BAND. IS THERE ANYBODY ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO WORK WITH?
There are so many great country people, new and old. I love Alan Jackson. I think he’s a great representative of country music and is still going strong. He’d really be an awesome one to do something with. I don’t know, you name it and I’m up for it pretty much.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO YOU TO MOVE BEYOND THE “IDOL” DESIGNATION?
I’m not trying to move away from anything. People know my name and like my music for whatever reason -- because I was on “Idol,” because they heard me on radio, because they saw me in videos -- any venue that I can reach people with is awesome. “Idol” was just another huge, huge way for me to reach new audiences and to gain new fans, so I’m not trying to move away from the “Idol” thing at all. It’s always “American Idol 2005 winner Carrie Underwood” -- people still announce me as that, so I’ll take it.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE “IDOL” MOMENT?Winning (laughs). I think getting to know people. I have a couple of friends from the show that I still keep in touch with and love to death. There were a lot of great things about it. Realizing what I was capable of was really amazing for me, because I think everybody might come up against things where you could either do something great or you could choke, and I might of semichoked a couple of times, but I realized that I could get through just about anything. That was the most important thing I could have possibly taken away from being on “Idol.”
WHAT HAS SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE MUSIC BUSINESS?It’s hard work. I don’t think I realized how much really goes into it. It’s a huge machine, a huge company, that has all kinds of people around you and you all have the same goal. I’m pretty much the spokesperson of all this other work that goes in behind it.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO TOUR WITH KENNY CHESNEY AND THEN BRAD PAISLEY?Other than being a lot of fun, it was a great learning experience for me. I picked up a lot along the way. There were these really excited fans already in front of me that were already excited to be there. I didn’t have to prove anything. I just had to get up there and do my thing and get more comfortable onstage and, of course, learn from the masters.
DID YOU DO SOME SOLO DATES? HOW DID THAT GO?I did, and it was awesome. I was almost afraid nobody would show up, and people did. I could apply what I learned from Kenny and from Brad into my own show and see how people would respond to different things.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOURING PLANS FOR THIS YEAR? WILL YOU HEADLINE OR GO OUT IN A SUPPORTING ROLE?I’m not really sure, honestly. I think I still have a lot more to learn, so I would feel more comfortable being on the road with somebody. We really haven’t gotten too far into that. I have a few dates lined up for this summer to keep everybody busy and to keep me fresh and in people’s minds, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine.
THIS MAY SEEM A STRANGE QUESTION SINCE YOU’RE JUST GETTING STARTED YOURSELF, BUT DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR ASPIRING ARTISTS OR THOSE NEW TO THE BUSINESS?
Gosh. Take your chances and try to do your best all the time. And always have a backup plan. I know there are a lot of people who do pack up their stuff and not finish school and move out to Los Angeles, Nashville or New York or wherever -- I don’t recommend that. I think it’s very important to have lots of things that you love to do, that you would be happy doing. Try all of them and see where life takes you.
HOW IMPORTANT WAS IT TO YOU TO GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE?It was very important for me. A) I only had a semester left, and I didn’t want to think that I had wasted three and a half years of my life. I wanted personally to get that diploma. Of course, my parents, they watched my other two sisters walk across the stage and get their degrees and everything, so I wanted them to have that sense of being proud of me for finishing and walking across that stage. And B) I also know that there will be a time when I’m going to have to try to talk my kids into going to college, and they’ll say, “Well, mom didn’t finish, so why should I?”