Pop-country has made superstars out of acts like Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift and more, but the term is not particularly endearing in Nashville, even to the artists who have come to define it.
"I hate saying pop-country — I hate using that," Carrie Underwood says during a recent interview while talking about some of her favorite artists.
Underwood, who has sold more than 10 million albums since her 2005 debut with hits that have appealed to both the MTV and CMT set, prefers to describe such music as "contemporary." But she acknowledges the sonic shift between some of her childhood idols and today's country stars.
"I loved Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn, those were the people that really first made me love country music. Then there were people like Bryan White who were like coming on the scene," the 26-year-old Oklahoma native explains. "And he was like one of the people that was like 'OK, they don't have to all sound like this.' People can sound all kind of ways. And he was young and hot."
"I've had people tell me, 'I never listened to country music until I saw you on "American Idol," and now I've been to a Rascal Flatts concerts, and I went and saw so and so,'" she adds. "And it's wonderful that we all kind of have our place in country music and we all pull listeners in for different reasons, and because of that we can hear everything."
Her third album, "Play On," out this week, stretches her country boundaries even further. Not only did the she re-team with "American Idol" judge and pop hitmaker Kara DioGuardi, who worked with her on her multiplatinum sophomore album, "Carnival Ride," she also worked with producers known for producing smashes for the likes of Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry (Max Martin) and Eminem (Mike Elizondo).
"I love all kinds of music and I think it's all kinds of fun when you take a slightly different element and you bring it to you and incorporate that into your music," she says.
There are high expectations for "Play On." Underwood, whose debut CD "Some Hearts" sold about 6 million copies and whose second album sold nearly 3 million, is expected to debut at the top with this record.
But not everyone was happy about her choice of collaborators on "Play On."
"I think everybody kind of freaked out at first. And it was something that we did take into consideration, that people would be like, 'What's going on here?'" she recalls.
"Everybody kind of flipped out over Mike Elizondo, who I really like," she says of the producer and songwriter, who co-wrote the CD's first single, "Cowboy Cassanova," a country and pop hit. "They're like, 'He's a rap producer.' And it's like, well, yes, he has done that, but he's also worked with Nelly Furtado and Pink and Fiona Apple. I'm just another name he's adding to his resume of all different kinds of music."
"Play On" is still very much country — there's banjo, peddle steel and mandolin — but Underwood has added different musical textures, which points to her maturation as an artist.
"I'm not trying to move anywhere away from country music," she declares while sitting in a production studio, dressed comfortably in jeans, a T-shirt and sandals. "I love what I do. And let's say 'Cowboy Casanova' crosses over, it's going to cross over as it is — fiddles, steel and all. Growing up I never liked it when people would have a country song and then change it for a different format."
And while Underwood had great pop success, she's still firmly a country queen. She nabbed the Academy of Country Music's entertainer of the year this spring, and has four nominations for Nov. 11's Country Music Association awards, for which she will also serve as host for the second straight year.
But Underwood is adept and bridging the gaps between country and pop, and does so again on "Play On." During one stint on Los Angeles, Underwood and songwriter Luke Laird, a friend who wrote several songs on "Carnival Ride," teamed up with DioGuardi and Marti Frederiksen to produce two of the album's most interesting tracks, "Undo It" and "Mama's Song."
The two songs couldn't be more different. "Undo It," with its revved up banjo intro and na-na-na chorus, is a great spurned love song.
"I like to be sassy. I'm a smart aleck and it's just fun to have a little sass," says Underwood.
"Mama's Song" is a straight-up love tune about helping a mother gain trust for a good man who wants to marry her daughter. The presence of her boyfriend, Ottawa Senators center Mike Fisher, can be felt on the song, the most personal of the seven Underwood wrote for the album.
"I think a lot of girls around her age are thinking about getting married," said Laird. "I think that was probably easier for her to write — not that she's thinking about getting married. I wouldn't know."
For the record, she's not getting married. But she feels comfortable enough in the relationship that it's starting to show through in her work — and add depth to it as well.
"This has been kind of my first attempt at love songs," Underwood says. "And I think there's a reason for that. I think it's because I'm a private person anyway, and I'm not so great with emotions. I consider myself more boyish in that way, so I'm pretty closed off. But you know when you're happy in your life, you can just kind of tell."