As the confetti fell and Carrie Underwood joyfully wept her way through her coronation song “Inside Your Heaven,” there was no guarantee that her fourth season American Idol win would mean widespread, commercial success.
Ten years later she has not only won over Music City but become one of the biggest stars in the genre, carting home a truckload of trophies — more than 70 — and selling over 15 million albums, making good on Idol judge Simon Cowell’s prediction that she would sell the most records of all the previous winners to that point. (And all of the winners since, as well.) She has become a member of the Grand Ole Opry and is poised for her eighth go-round as co-host of the upcoming CMA Awards — where she will compete in the Female Vocalist and Music Video of the Year categories — on November 4th with buddy Brad Paisley.
During her Idol run, the Oklahoma native’s vocal prowess made her a consistent front-runner, but she did not escape judges’ criticism. They noted her golden throat was often mightier than her green stage presence and commented on a sense of stiffness and a lack of personality. (And if you go back down the very enjoyable YouTube rabbit hole of her Idol performances, you’ll see she was often unsure of what to do with her left arm.)
The release of her strong fifth album Storyteller, out today, caps a decade-long exploration into Underwood finding and cementing that artistic personality — and one that exudes confidence.
A pivotal moment in putting that confidence on display came during the Academy of Country Music awards in 2011, when Underwood went toe to toe with Aerosmith frontman (and soon-to-be-country singer) Steven Tyler in a defiant, sexy, and playful duet of her hit “Undo It” and the Aerosmith classic “Walk This Way.”
Of course, Underwood had rocked out at various stages up to this point (see: “Before He Cheats,” “Last Name,” “Cowboy Casanova”). But she also still seemed like the person so fearful of offending that she felt compelled to include a disclaimer about not condoning the destruction of property mentioned in “Before He Cheats” in the liner notes of her debut album Some Hearts. This was the polite girl who, when asked by host Ryan Seacrest if she was starting to feel competitive, demurred and said she had a life to return to if she didn’t win. Her endearing, girl-next-door persona was part of her appeal, but it also felt like only part of the picture. In short, it sometimes felt like, to quote Cowell after her Idol performance of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” “watching a kitten who wants to be a tiger.”
This performance made it clear that Underwood was no longer content to tame her inner tiger, and she unleashed it with a ferocity that she hadn’t really shown before. She hinted at it when she teased her hair and belted out Heart’s “Alone” in a crucial Idol performance —”Carrie has finally come alive!” crowed judged Randy Jackson. But this electrifying vocal pas de deux really threw the match on the gasoline. Even Tyler was feeling the heat as you could see him wave imaginary smoke away from her microphone near the song’s end.
The woman who professed her love for hard rock and classic country, finally melded the two — for what is “Undo It” but vintage Def Leppard mashed up with a done-me-wrong song? — in a way that seemed to fit her and free her. Strutting out back-lit, rocking a black mini-skirt and pink streaks in her hair, Underwood schooled that bad boy on his errant ways before welcoming Tyler to the stage for a racy “Walk.” The unbridled joy with which she stomped, shouted, snarled and threw some grit on her voice — while also letting loose a couple of clearly ecstatic smiles — as she more than held her own with one of rock’s most famous bad boys (and powerful vocalists and scene stealers to boot), felt like a breakthrough.
That expansion of sensibility extended to the concert stage where Underwood opened up even more, to the CMA stage where she became comfortable with her sometimes snarky co-hosting duties, and to the studio in the darker edges and harder riffs of 2012’s Blown Away, with songs like “Two Black Cadillacs” and “Good Girl.”
Storyteller brings that sense of freedom even further into focus as Underwood continues to juggle heartfelt balladry and mischievous bad-assery on songs like “Dirty Laundry” and “Church Bells,” having found a way to more believably balance her innate sense of sweetness with her clear enjoyment of sass.