A winner from the start

MINNEAPOLIS -- Carrie Underwood has easily had the fastest, and most consistent, start of any American Idol winner. In a year and a half, she went from small-town girl finishing her college degree in journalism to having Billboard's No. 1 album of 2006 and being voted the Country Music Association (CMA) female vocalist of the year.

Talk about meteoric rise.


"It's one of those rare combinations where she can start with such a huge fan base and you have an absolutely great record," said Gregg Swedberg, program director of Twin Cities country station K102. Her Idol base included girls who wanted to be like her ("You can sell a lot of records to a young female audience," said Swedberg), country fans (she was committed to that genre from the git-go) and young men ("She's a good-looking young gal").

"Most of the Idols have not made very good first records," Swedberg said. "You can argue artistic value all you want, but Carrie made an extremely commercial record."


Moreover, she chose the right format - country - where other Idols have focused on pop, rock or R&B.; Not only is country her natural style, but it's a less crowded field that's starved for fresh female voices.

"The country music community has been so great to me," Underwood said with the congeniality you'd expect of a pageant winner. "They were glad to have someone representing country music to such a wide audience on American Idol."

Typically, the CMA's top female prize, like the Oscar for best director, goes to someone who has paid her dues.

"I've heard a lot of 'You deserve it' and I've heard a lot of [questioning] that I haven't paid my dues," the 23-year-old newcomer said by phone recently. "It kind of hurts my feelings a little bit because nobody in the business went through what the contestants on American Idol went through. That's a whole 'nother kind of dues-payin' right there.

"Being under that much stress when you're just a nobody - you don't even know what you're doing. It's very, very tough. You take your normal, everyday person who would like to sing and then you put them in such a high-pressure situation where you're allowed to be critiqued in front of millions of people."

When her name was announced as the CMA winner, rival nominee Faith Hill was shown on camera mouthing "What?" The new champ wasn't aware of the flap until after the program ended. But feathers were quickly smoothed that night when Hill phoned Underwood to apologize in a five- to 10-minute conversation.

"I felt so bad because Faith Hill is such a wonderful person and it was just a joke gone bad," Underwood said. "I know she's taken a lot of heat for it. I know she would never disrespect anybody like that."

She has won five Billboard Awards, including album of the year; was named best newcomer at the CMAs and breakthrough artist at the American Music Awards, and is up for best new artist at the Grammys on Feb. 11. But her biggest surprise is selling more than 4 million copies of her debut disc, Some Hearts, released in November 2005.


"I just wanted my first album to do well enough where I could make a second one," she said with a giggle. "It definitely exceeded all my expectations."

Her debut single, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," went to No. 1 and is a Grammy finalist for song of the year. Underwood didn't write the tune, but its religious theme was a good fit for her image as a wholesome, small-town sweetheart.

Then she threw a curveball with her third single, "Before He Cheats," an unexpectedly violent song about smashing the headlights and slashing the tires on the vehicle of her philandering boyfriend.

"When I first heard it, I wasn't sure if it would fit on the album, but I loved the song," said Underwood, who watched the sassily sung track spend five weeks atop Billboard's country chart this fall. "It's fun to do something that's outside your box and play a character that's not like you. It's the most fun to perform onstage because there's just this vibe that people get and sing along. And guys sing along."

The rookie has spent the year touring with Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley and headlining a few of her own shows at fairs. She also managed to squeeze in one last college class at Northeastern State in Oklahoma - she was three credits short of her mass-communications degree, which she received in the spring.

If she wrote the story of Carrie Underwood, she said, her angle would be: "Small-town girl makes it big." Although she now lives (alone) in Nashville, Tenn., she still sounds like an awestruck Okie, peppering her conversation with "geez" and "awesome."


She describes herself as silly, talented, intelligent and hard-working. "I think I'm pretty boring," she said. "I don't have a glamorous lifestyle."

Unlike many previous Idol singers who have built recording careers, she's in no hurry to distance herself from the TV franchise. "They can call me American Idol winner as long as they want to," she said.

Underwood stays in touch with AI, in part because she is managed by 19 Entertainment, which also produces the show.