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Underwood knows where she stands

The 2005 American Idol winner realizes the show, and its fans, are essential to her musical and marketing success.

Published June 29, 2006

Carrie Underwood is on Line 1, and she's calling from . . . some state that begins with an I.

"I'm in Des Moines, Iowa," she says cheerfully. "No, wait, wait - where am I? Boise, Idaho. Why do I get that confused with Des Moines, Iowa? See, I don't even know where I'm at."

She laughs, and without thinking, you feel compelled to laugh with her. It's tough not to smile around the blond golden girl next door with the Oklahoma county-fair roots.

Since topping Bo Bice in the 2005 American Idol finale, Underwood has developed into the hottest female country singer around, with a mantel full of CMT and Academy of Country Music awards to prove it.

Now she has landed the opening slot on the Kenny Chesney & Friends tour, which stops Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. Of course, when you've performed before 30-million people on television, a stadium crowd of 60,000 probably seems like a birthday party sing-along.

"I think Idol was definitely more nerve-racking, and harder, just because you can't see who you're singing to," she says. "When you're singing in front of live people . . . you can see how they like it or don't like it, and you can adjust and feel the energy that's coming from them."

Underwood's post-Idol success seems almost predestined because she emerged with a clearly defined fan base.

Underwood's strength was country, and she played to it from the start. Her reward was the triple-platinum debut album Some Hearts and a warm embrace by country fans.

She's also a star on Madison Avenue. She was singing in Hershey's commercials the moment she broke through on Idol, and her ads for Skechers have been plastered in malls for the past year.

"There's been so much stuff, honestly, that we've had to turn down, because it really would be kind of, 'Gah, I can't take Carrie Underwood anymore!' " she says.

Yes, Underwood is unabashedly mainstream. Several of the songs on Some Hearts sound a bit "poppy," including two tracks penned by pop hitmaker Diane Warren. She has been known to bust out the occasional Guns N' Roses cover in concert. The first song she can remember singing was Motley Crue's cover of Smokin' In The Boys Room.

"For this first album, we wanted to make it as likable to as many different people as we possibly could, without betraying who I was and who I wanted to be," she says. "There's a lot of people who watched American Idol, and a lot of people who weren't necessarily country fans who watched American Idol. So the first mission, now that they saw me and hopefully liked me on American Idol, was to hook as many people in as we can."

Her smash single Jesus, Take The Wheel, a tear-jerking ballad of born-again faith in a time of crisis, has received across-the-board acclaim.

"That song is an amazing song, and I honestly think that any singer, any performer, would have done amazing with that song, just because of the power of the song. I, fortunately, was lucky enough to have it," she says. "But I think it's really spoiled me. I'm like, 'Do all songs go to No. 1? Do all songs go there that quickly?' "

Underwood, who has a degree in mass communication from Northeastern State University, is also trying to develop as a songwriter. She's listed as a co-writer on her hometown tribute I Ain't In Checotah Anymore, and she says she's slowly getting comfortable with putting her lyrics to music.

"I'm getting there," she says. "I keep a journal, and I've started trying to do a little more free-thinking exercises, and writing down what I feel and what I think and what I want to say. It's getting better, and I definitely think at some point, I will be there."

Does she ever gets sick of talking about American Idol? Underwood says she'd still be in Oklahoma if not for the show's producer, Simon Fuller, who remains her manager.

"I know why I'm here," she says. "So I will forever be grateful and in debt to that show. So I'll do whatever they want me to do, and they can call me an American Idol as long as they want to."

Jay Cridlin can be reached at (727) 893-8336 or

*   *   *

Kenny Chesney & Friends with Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, Dierks Bentley and Carrie Underwood, 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Raymond James Stadium, Dale Mabry, Tampa. $32-$92. 727 898-2100 or (813) 287-8844.

* A free Pre-Kenny Chesney show with Bobby Bare Jr., Redd Volkaert, Deadstring Brothers and Garrison Starr, 1-4:30 p.m. Saturday in the Raymond James Stadium parking lot. Free. (212) 501-1379.

[Last modified June 28, 2006, 12:24:08]

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