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With new confidence, Underwood eager to "Play On"

 Carrie Underwood performs during the 42nd Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, November 12, 2008. REUTERS/Tami Chappell - Reuters
Carrie Underwood performs during the 42nd Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, November 12, 2008. REUTERS/Tami Chappell
— image credit: Reuters

By Deborah Evans Price

NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Carrie Underwood just spent several hours sitting in Audio Productions -- a Music Row radio and TV production facility -- doing interviews with radio stations across the country, but she looks fresh and relaxed as she prepares for her final chat of the day.

She talks with the engineer about how excited she is to hear Miranda Lambert's new CD, "Revolution." And when someone offers to give her a copy, Underwood sweetly protests, "Oh, no, I'm going to buy it."

It's that combination of girl-next-door charm and a killer set of pipes that has made Underwood the best-selling artist to emerge from "American Idol" in any genre. Since winning the fourth season of the Fox competition, Underwood has released two albums, the 2005 "Some Hearts," which has sold 6.8 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the 2007 "Carnival Ride," which has sold 2.9 million. She's won four Grammy Awards and numerous other accolades, including three Country Music Association female vocalist titles and three Academy of Country Music female vocalist honors. Last spring, she took home the ACM's entertainer of the year award, becoming only the seventh woman in the show's 42-year history to earn that accolade.

With such impressive accomplishments just four years into her career, one might expect Underwood to feel a little pressure before the Tuesday (November 3) release of her new Arista Nashville album, "Play On." Instead, she radiates a quiet confidence.

"I feel like the second album had the most pressure for me," she says, acknowledging that she felt the first one had a shot at succeeding because of her built-in "Idol" audience. Then it exceeded expectations. "It kept going and kept going and kept going, and the next thing it was like triple platinum and quadruple platinum and five times platinum, and it was like 'Oh, my gosh!'"

'I'M HOME'

Looking svelte in a black sweatshirt dress with a red belt, red bracelet and red Marc Jacobs flats, 26-year-old Underwood is the epitome of casual chic -- but don't mistake laid-back for unambitious.

"I want to be somebody in the music business, not just somebody that (people say), 'Oh, yeah, five years ago she won that. Where did she go?' So making ("Carnival Ride") was pretty stressful, but on this one I feel like I'm home," she says. "I'm in the music business. When people mention names like Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban and Brad Paisley, sometimes my name is in there too."

Of the 13 tracks on "Play On," Underwood co-write seven. "I'm not an easy person to get to know, and I feel like I keep a lot of myself closed off to the world," she says. "It's really nice to be able to scratch the surface and to be able to open myself up a little more."

In recording "Play On," Underwood once again worked with producer Mark Bright, who produced "Carnival Ride" and seven tracks on "Some Hearts." "Over the summer, we spent more time with arrangements, and Carrie experimented more than ever with vocal textures," Bright says. "What came out on the other side is extraordinary. I think we got it right."

Underwood says she trusts Bright, and that makes recording a more comfortable process. "I've known him now for five years," she says. "I've worked with him on every album, and I trust him and he trusts me. I'm comfortable with him now -- whereas in the beginning it was like, 'Oh, my gosh. This guy is a big-time producer. What if I do bad?' I was really afraid to mess up. Now I'm not afraid to screw up. I can screw up royally when I'm in the studio and it's OK. I trust him."

In the past, Underwood co-wrote with a stable of Music Row tunesmiths including Hillary Lindsey and Luke Laird, who co-wrote "So Small" and "Last Name," and Brett James, who co-wrote "Jesus Take the Wheel" with Lindsey and Gordie Sampson. For "Play On," she expanded her circle to collaborate with "American Idol" judge/BMI 2007 pop songwriter of the year Kara DioGuardi; Mike Elizondo, known for his work with Dr. Dre and Eminem; and Raine Maida, co-founder of the rock band Our Lady Peace, and his wife, Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk.

"I listen to all kinds of music, all genres," Underwood says. "Bringing somebody from a different world into my world to see what their influence can do in my writing style -- it's a lot of fun."

These new collaborations don't mean that Underwood's about to switch genres -- she's still a country girl at heart. "I'm promising right now it would never happen," she says.

MULTIGENERATIONAL APPEAL

Judging by the success of the first single, "Cowboy Casanova," "Play On" looks sure to follow the platinum path of its predecessors. In its first week, "Casanova" sold 110,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "An unfinished version leaked," Underwood says of the label rushing the finished version to radio. "It was really frustrating, but then it was exciting too. Radio stations were immediately putting it into heavy rotation and it was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is good.'"

Sony Music Nashville chairman Joe Galante attributes much of Underwood's success to her multigenerational appeal. "Carrie goes from cradle to grave," he says of her fans. "She has positioned herself as somebody that cares about this format deeply. She is a country artist. She's made it very plain."

In the past four years, Underwood has dominated country radio with such No. 1 hits as "Jesus Take the Wheel," "Before He Cheats," "Wasted," "All-American Girl," "So Small" and "Just a Dream." Galante speaks with obvious pride of how Underwood has handled success. "I think it all hit her like a ton of bricks in the first couple of years, and now this year has been easier," he says. "Carrie has grown up a lot, considering she got dropped into this format on her head, not on her feet, and people were standing on the sidelines going, 'You're not really country, you're a TV show star.' I think she's impressed the heck out of people by her reverence for country music."

Underwood's manager, Simon Fuller, chief executive of 19 Entertainment and creator of the "Idol" franchise, has high expectations for "Play On." "I think we'll exceed the success of the last album with this album," he says. "It's stronger in depth and there's more variety."

'ORGANIZED STALKING'

Part of the efforts to alert Underwood's fans that there's a new album coming involved revamping her Web site, CarrieUnderwoodOfficial.com, to be more community-based and allow for fan participation.

One thing Underwood doesn't plan to use is Twitter. "It just sounds like organized stalking to me," she says. "I'll be in a restaurant and I'll get home and somebody tweeted and talked about what I ordered and what I was wearing. In some cases that could be dangerous because you don't want everybody to know where you are in every second of every day." (Someone is posing as Underwood on Twitter, in the comments on her Web site and on MySpace, and she warns fans that it isn't her.)

Though some alumni tire of talking about their "Idol" backgrounds and try to distance themselves from the show, Underwood says she'll always be appreciative. "I do credit the show for every single thing that I have," she says, "and as long as they want me to come back year to year and perform, I am so there."

She'll also stake out new territory on the small screen, with her first TV special, slated to air December 7 on Fox. Guests will include Paisley, Dolly Parton and David Cook. Nearer at hand, Underwood looks forward to co-hosting the CMA Awards and embarking on her new tour in 2010.

"We'll go into rehearsals early next year, but it's going to be bigger. It's going to be awesome. We're pulling out all the stops," says Underwood, who was the top-ranked female country touring artist of 2008, according to Billboard Boxscore, grossing $27.1 million from 90 shows.

"I don't need to make any money, let's just do this," Underwood jokingly told her handlers about the tour. "Let's just step it up. I know everybody is going to say, 'Oh, my gosh. This cost what?' But, shoot, we can come back next year with an acoustic tour. This year let's just go for broke."

(Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters)

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