This much we know about Carrie Underwood:
1. She grew up on a farm in Checotah, Okla.
2. Simon Cowell correctly predicted she’d win the fourth season of American Idol after her earthshaking performance of Heart’s ”Alone” — when there were still 11 contestants left in the competition.
3. Faith Hill’s mock-outraged reaction to Underwood’s Female Vocalist of the Year win at last year’s Country Music Association awards resulted in a full-fledged scandal.
Beyond that? Well, not much — which is unusual in an era when other female singers keep us fully briefed on their rehab stints, child-custody battles, and record-label wars. Yet Underwood is something of a mystery to both her staunch fans, who love her wholesome image and powerhouse voice, and her unwavering detractors, who dismiss her as the contrived product of a televised talent show — and one who didn’t pay nearly enough dues for the success she’s enjoying in Nashville.
But even the naysayers can’t argue with these numbers: Underwood’s 2005 debut album, Some Hearts, has sold nearly 6 million copies, recently squeaking by Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway to become the most successful record from any Idol contestant. Hearts‘ multiplatinum prowess also puts it neck and neck with Nickelback’s 2005 All the Right Reasons for the best-selling release of the last two years, period. (At press time, Nickelback were ahead by 74,000 units.) At 24, she has collected two Grammys, two CMA awards, five Academy of Country Music awards, two People’s Choice awards, and an American Music award. She’s also had four smash singles on the country charts; one of them, ”Before He Cheats” — a sassy ode to post-breakup auto detailing — ended up a pop-radio hit last summer and a mainstay in the top 10 of Billboard‘s Hot 100.
For all her achievements and recognition — after all, she sang her heart out on the most popular TV show in America — Underwood flies very much below the radar. She is not a tabloid target (unless she becomes embroiled in controversy with a couple of veteran country singers, or gets photographed with America’s quarterback, Dallas Cowboy Tony Romo). Even Cowell, who spent six months with Underwood in 2005 during Idol, can’t help. ”She doesn’t give anything away,” he says. ”I know nothing more about her now than I did when I met her. Fantasia comes back, she’s like a puppy you haven’t seen in three years — bounds into the dressing room, screaming, laughing, shouting. Carrie? You can’t get to her.”
Sitting in the house on Nashville’s Music Row where she co-wrote 4 of the 13 tracks on her second record, Carnival Ride (out Oct. 23), Underwood admits she doesn’t usually do much to fill in the blanks: ”I say what I need to, not a whole lot more.” But ask the right questions and you’ll find that the star is hardly shy — quite the opposite, in fact. During her EW interview, she comes across as an opinionated and confident young woman who reveals that she loves singing but hates being stared at, loves her family but can’t fathom following in their domesticated footsteps, and, most of all, loves country music and can’t understand why so much of that world has rejected her. And that’s just for starters…
NEXT PAGE: ”I’ve learned this, that haters wanna hate. You could sing a song perfectly, you could write the songs perfectly, and some people are absolutely going to hate you.”