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COVER STORY

Country Carrie

Stagecoach? The Grand Ole Opry? It's a long way from 'Idol.'

May 01, 2008|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

Talk about being handed the keys to the country club.

On Sunday in Indio, Carrie Underwood plays Stagecoach, the nation's biggest country music festival, along with closing-day superstar headliner Tim McGraw and the man widely considered the greatest living country singer, George Jones. A week later, the "American Idol" alumna will be inducted as the newest member of the celebrated Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the spiritual center of country music for eight decades.

It's a double-shot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the 25-year-old singer from Checotah, Okla., who three years ago was just another wannabe star running the gantlet that is "Idol." Even after her 2005 win, the country music establishment wasn't quick to take her seriously. Who can forget the flap that exploded when Faith Hill apparently was caught in an on-camera hissy fit when Underwood's name was called as female vocalist of the year at the 2006 Country Music Assn. Awards ceremony?

Despite Hill's explanation that it was a misconstrued joke, and Underwood's acceptance of the explanation, the young singer endured a period during which she felt she was often facing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Simon Cowells each time she performed.

"In the beginning, the overall feeling was that everybody was just curious about me," Underwood says from an Atlanta hotel on the penultimate day of her spring tour with Keith Urban. "Every chance I had in the beginning, I had to prove myself, to prove to everyone that I really wanted to be here and that [the "Idol" win] wasn't a fluke."

Even after her debut album, "Some Hearts," quickly rose to No. 2 on the national sales chart, she didn't feel the case was closed.

"Anybody can make somebody sound great on an album," she says. "There are so many tricks and tools and toys you can use in the studio. So at every show, I took every vocal opportunity to prove to everybody that I could really sing."

Next week's Grand Ole Opry induction is a huge moment. While performing at the Opry in March, she was surprised by Randy Travis with the invitation to join, a special thrill for her after her decision to record his 1988 hit "I Told You So" on her sophomore album, "Carnival Ride," which has sold 2 million copies since its release last fall.

"To me, growing up, the Opry was something you associated with country music," says Underwood, who counts Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn among her childhood heroines. "Everybody in other genres of music doesn't have stuff like that, and it makes me respect the format so much. People love and respect the artists for a long time.

"If you respect the fans and the business, you can be in it as long as you want. I walk the halls of the Grand Ole Opry and see the pictures and think about all the people who have played there, and people still love and respect them. To think that might happen to me 30, 40 or 50 years from now, it's great."

Underwood exhibits the kind of humility that's ideal for a long career in country, a trait that she says has been influenced by Travis. "He's always conducted himself so wonderfully, I've never heard anybody say a harsh word about him," she says. In fact, as Travis' career was skyrocketing in the 1980s, and those of veteran performers were ebbing, he still humbly -- and happily -- remained an opening act for Country Music Hall of Fame members such as Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, even though his records were far outselling theirs.

Out of admiration for Travis, Underwood said she didn't put her version of "I Told You So" on "Carnival Ride" until it had been OK'd by him.

"Anyone can record any song that they want, but I would never have recorded ["I Told You So"] if he hadn't wanted anybody else to sing it. We have some of the same 'people,' " she says, giggling at one of her rare forays into industry-speak. "Once we recorded it, we had somebody play it for him, and he gave it the thumbs up. To have his blessing really meant a lot."

Given the blessings she's received in the form of a debut album that's sold nearly 6 1/2 million copies in the U.S., support slots on tours with Urban, Gretchen Wilson, Reba McEntire and others, Underwood says she's been only too happy to participate two years running in the "Idol Gives Back" fund- and awareness-raising campaigns.

Her trip to Africa last year to see firsthand the need "definitely was a life-changing experience. Simon Cowell got it right when he said you just don't think places like that really exist. Nobody turns the faucet on here and says 'Hallelujah!' when water comes out. We just don't think about it. Or turning the light switch on and things actually work. . . . The basic necessities of life, the simplest things, you just don't have in a lot of places there. It made me very grateful. . . ."

She doesn't so much as bat a hazel eye at the nonmusical requirements of her life as a country-pop star: sharing her makeup regimen with fashion magazines, discussing her diet, who she's dating or who she's not.

There are inconveniences, to be sure. This day in Atlanta, for instance, even if she didn't have a full slate of interviews to conduct, radio stations to visit and sound check before the evening's concert, she says she probably would have stayed put rather than exploring the city. "There are about 200 high school kids hanging out at our hotel . . . it might be hazardous to my health if I left," she says with a little laugh.

"That's the way it is, and nothing's going to change that," she adds with equanimity. "I live in Nashville -- I don't live in New York or Los Angeles -- so I don't have that much of a problem with people following me around and taking pictures of everything I do.

"I love living in Nashville -- I can work as much as I want, and it's a very family-friendly place to live. Being on stage is my reward. If I've got to jump through a lot of hoops to get that reward, that's OK."

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