THE RIGHT STUFF: If “Last Name” ever makes it to radio, it’ll be shouted out by sloshed females at bars across the land.
The process was well under way, but YouTube provided a caught-on-camera bright-red underline. The occasion was the 2006 Country Music Association Awards, and when it was announced that Carrie Underwood had won Female Artist of the Year, fellow nominee Faith Hill, then country music’s long-running diva of choice, reacted with an angry “What?!” as she stared right at the camera.
The moment couldn’t have captured the shifting fortunes of the pair any better if Hill had interrupted the CMAs to give Underwood a glittering crown and a key to the city of Nashville. Hill has since said she was joking, but that’s beside the point. Underwood, the 24-year-old former American Idol winner whose second CD, Carnival Ride (Arista), recently shot to the top of the charts, is the new diva of Music Row — which by most lights makes her America’s pop diva. Whereas the country’s other reigning songbirds appear to be concentrating on clothing lines (the exception being Jennifer Lopez, who’s too busy wondering where her audience went), Underwood’s just singing. And the music she’s making is equal to the size of the stage she’s now on.
Plenty of cynicism has been directed at this blonde, beautiful singer — after all, she got her start on a puffed-up talent show. And Nashville, the great sterile music factory, rarely gets any valentines. But since Underwood’s new album sold just over 500,000 copies in its first week, becoming a certified blockbuster in an era where those don’t happen so often anymore, her strategy of blowing air kisses to country music’s faithful looks like a stroke of genius. Just ask fellow Idol winner Kelly Clarkson how trusting in fickle fans has worked out for her.
It’s not as if Carnival Ride were some kind of throwback hardcore trad country album. It’s a breezy country/rock/pop party with ballads that confirm, just in case anybody was wondering, that Underwood is still a voice first. Yes, she helped write four of the 13 songs, but for the most part Carnival Ride follows the long-established formula where an army of Nashville songwriters supply the material and the star shows it off in the best light.
And this star is more than capable. She pitches into the wide variety with gusto, from “Just a Dream,” a ballad written from the point of a disbelieving war widow, to “Last Name,” a big, catchy, stomp-rock number about how “momma would be so ashamed” of the girl who forgets essential details after a drunken one-night stand. If “Last Name” ever makes it to the radio, watch out: it will be shouted out by sloshed females at bars across the land. There are forgettable tunes here as well, but CarnivalRide is loaded with potential hits — tracks that country radio will be sorting through well into next year.
To her credit, Underwood hasn’t shown much interest in self-promotion in her short time in the spotlight: she’s stayed away from talk shows and out of the tabloids. As a result, she’s still a blank slate, a bullhorn the best songwriters can use without offending any segment of the country — i.e., the pop audience. In others words, she’s a gift to the ailing music industry. Faith Hill never had a chance.