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Friday, June 8, 2012

The New Queen of Country: Carrie Underwood

It's fair to say that the UK has never really embraced Country music. Sure we worship Dolly, but who doesn't? There was a brief flirtation in the 70's when Tammy Wynette, Billie Jo Spears, Anne Murray and Crystal Gayle were regularly in the charts, but we seemed to get over it. Perhaps it's because there's something so quintessentially American about Country music that it struggles to translate to other markets; God and nation are intrinsic to the genre and religion and patriotism has always made us Brits feel a bit queasy. I've always been drawn to Country music, there's something about the honesty and humour of country lyrics that is unique to the genre and a great Country singer can reach the parts other singers just cannot reach. Since moving to the USA I've realised that a whole new generation of Country stars have emerged, crossing over to the pop charts and reaching out to a broader audience. One of the new breed of Country divas and my personal favourite, Carrie Underwood, is about to play her first concert in the UK at the legendary Royal Albert Hall, but is already a megastar in her homeland. I think it's about time the UK embraced Country again and where better to start than with a listen to my top five Carrie songs.

Jesus, Take The Wheel (2005)

Carrie was discovered when she entered the fourth season of American Idol and promptly won. Simon Cowell proclaimed early on that, not only would she win, she would go on to be the biggest selling Idol winner; a prophecy that has come to pass. Her debut album Some Hearts became the fastest selling Country debut album and the best selling debut by a female Country artist. It was the best-selling album in the US in 2006 and spawned three number one hits, including her Idol winner's single, the suitably schmaltzy Inside Your Heaven.

It was her second single though that would set the tone for Carrie's career and become an instant Country classic. Those that know me might be surprised that Jesus, Take The Wheel is one of my favourite songs, but it is so good it almost makes me a true believer. It is not just one of the best Country songs of the last decade, it is in my opinion one of the best songs full stop (or period). Despite her good girl image (which I think genuinely reflects her inherent sweetness), many of Carrie's songs are sung from the point of view of women who are down on their luck or have been a bit naughty. In this song she plays someone who is at the end of her rope, driving home for Christmas with her child on the back seat when the car hits black ice. With nothing to rely on but her faith, Carrie flings a prayer up to Jesus to save her and her child. It is not just a brilliant conceit for a Country song, it is so perfectly executed that it takes your breath away.

With an assured and heartfelt vocal performance, Carrie instantly jettisoned any reality show baggage and signalled that she was a bona fide talent, however she got her break. The melody is understated in the story-setting verses, but it is the soaring chorus that pricks up every hair and draws you to the edge of your seat. The lyrics are pure Country gold, treading the fine line between melodrama and pathos, and tap in to that moment we've all had when our problems seem to outweigh the solutions we have within our grasp.

Carrie was named Best New Artist at the 2007 Grammys and Jesus, Take The Wheel won two Grammys, Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Country Song of the Year, as well as numerous other awards. It went double platinum in the US and along with the success of the album signalled that a serious new talent in Country music had arrived.

Last Name (2007)

Following up a huge debut album is never easy, but Carrie's second album Carnival Ride only cemented her success. Debuting at number one, selling over 500,000 copies in its first week alone, this time it included four platinum selling number one singles. The standout track for me is another terrifically clever Country lyric. Last Name finds Carrie on a night out when she has perhaps drunk just a little bit too much, to the extent that she hooks up with a guy when she "don't even know his last name". Things go downhill from there, when she wakes up the next morning with a ring on her finger, realising that it's her own last name that now escapes her. Only Country gets away with stuff like this!

The song's hook is world class and singing along is compulsory. Carrie is capable of such sweetness on her ballads, but on this she sounds much tougher and, dare I say it, a little bit dirty. The production on Carrie's records is always top notch and the backings are always tight and perfectly frame her vocals. It won her another Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and became her fifth consecutive number one on the Billboard Country charts.

By now Carrie had been firmly accepted into the Country establishment, even being inducted as a member of the Grande Ole Opry in 2008. Carnival Ride is an accomplished album, with even the lesser tracks offering something of value, including one of my favourite lyrics on the track The More Boys I Meet, when Carrie opines that the more boys she meets "the more I love my dog". Have I mentioned I love Country lyrics?

I Told You So (2009)

Such were the riches on Carnival Ride that it was still offering up hit singles two years after its release. The most gorgeous ballad on the album was a cover of Randy Travis' heartbreaking I Told You So, where the singer realises too late that the lover they left behind was the one. Carrie sang the song solo on the album, but later re-recorded it as a duet with Randy. Despite the differences in their voices, or maybe because of this, the two combine splendidly on the duet. It is virtually impossible for me to get through the track with a dry eye, but then apparently Carrie has the same problem.

When sung solo, the lyrics pose hypothetical questions to which the singer imagines the, sadly, negative answers. As a duet it takes on another dimension, with the hypothesis revealed as fact. All genres can create songs that tug at the heartstrings, but there's something about a Country ballad that makes it sound like heartbreak was created in Nashville. Just beautiful. Guess what, it won another Grammy, this time for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (they have an award for everything!). Are you getting the idea now: Carrie's rather special.

Undo It (2009)

Album number three, Play On, entered the charts at number one and deposited three number one singles on the Country chart: oh you now the drill by now. This is my favourite Carrie album, from the funky Cowboy Casanova to the tearjerker Someday When I Stop Loving You, it is pure class. However I became so obsessed with one track in particular it was on constant repeat on my iPod for about three months solid. Perhaps the most archetypal Country song is the one where the woman unloads on her cheating man. A prime example of this breed, Undo It is catchier than a British cold and it's toughness shows that Country is the new Rock'n'Roll.

Carrie is pretty good at playing the scorned woman, she delivers the vocal with a gutsy edge without tipping over into psychosis. Undo It is a pretty straightforward song lyrically, it is the storming chorus that makes it such a classic. It employs a clever stuttering effect that nags its way into your brain to the extent that it's likely to make you seek revenge on your partner even if they've done nothing wrong, so listen with care. Another Billboard Country number one, but no Grammy this time; hey, you can't win 'em all.

Good Girl (2012)

Carrie released her latest album, Blown Away, in the US last month and guess what, it went straight to number one. The lead single was another great slice of Country pop, Good Girl, which gave Carrie another number one Country single. Good Girl finds Carrie in solid form, stretching her voice to a new level of intensity while warning "he's no good girl, no good for you, better get to getting on your goodbye shoes". Carrie has developed a definite sound by now, as soon as I heard this track on the radio I knew it was her: that is surely the sign of a true artist.

Blown Away has a more adult feel than Carrie's previous releases and the title track in particular has a darker tone to it, which draws you in to the drama as a tornado hits and blows the song into gritty pieces. Gripping stuff. By now we know what to expect from a Carrie Underwood album, but given that is Country pop of the highest order, the fact that she continues to deliver should not be sniffily dismissed. I truly hope the UK falls under Carrie's spell when the album is released there on 18 June. The signs are heartening, her Royal Albert Hall show sold out in 90 minutes, so there's clearly demand. If anyone can reignite Britain's latent love of Country music, then surely it is Carrie Underwood. Though I'm missing her UK debut I have my ticket for when her tour hits LA in October and I cannot wait. All hail the new Queen of Country.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Blown Away is out now in the US and released on 18 June in the UK on Sony CMG. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: The New Queen of Country

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