By Sarah Rodman
May 02, 2019 at 11:22 AM EDT
Jeff Johnson

On the heels of her fourth No. 1 album, Carrie Underwood takes EW behind-the-scenes of her innovative Cry Pretty Tour 360, which kicked off with a sold-out show May 1 in Greensboro, NC. 

Carrie Underwood tilts her head back ever so slightly and lets loose a piercing high note, as she rounds home on a rousing cover of Martina McBride’s 1993 smash “Independence Day.” When she leans into the fist-pumping “let freedom ring” chorus, Maddie Marlow and Taylor Dye (aka Maddie & Tae), and the women of Runaway June (Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland, and Jennifer Wayne) raise their voices alongside her. In a version of a medley they first performed on the 2018 CMT Artists of the Year special, the ladies, backed by Underwood’s sharp eight-piece band– including two fiddle players since, as Underwood notes, “It’s country music. If you’ve got two, you use ’em”–  run through a clutch of songs by Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntire, and Shania Twain, among others, belting their hearts out in a shiver-inducing display of tight harmonies and turn-on-a-dime precision. (Not to mention a first-class primer on some of the most successful women in country music history.)

Given the arena-size gusto with which they are performing—Underwood in particular is holding nothing back—you’d never guess the group was in a nondescript rehearsal space in a low-slung building in Nashville on a Monday afternoon. If this is what it sounds like in a room decorated with sagging couches and battered card tables strewn with coffee cups, and populated by musicians and tour personnel clad mostly in sweatshirts and jeans, it bodes very well for Underwood’s Cry Pretty Tour 360, which kicked off in Greensboro, NC May 1. (The same night Underwood copped a Billboard award for Top Country Female Artist.)

“It makes me sad I don’t have [a] Patty Loveless [song] in there,” says Underwood, taking a seat  after repeatedly running through the medley, with the help of producer Mark Bright– “another set of ears”– fine-tuning the flow, harmonies, and who sings what when. (It is unanimously decided that they will sing in unison on part of Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.”)

Jeff Johnson

(From left: Hannah Mulholland, Naomi Cooke, and Jennifer Wayne of Runaway June and Taylor Dye and Maddie Marlow of Maddie & Tae, and Carrie Underwood, in rehearsal.)

The 36-year-old Oklahoma native is eager to hit the road and pleased to report that, in terms of preparation, “Lining it up with previous tours, we are ahead of where we have been in the past at this point.” She is impatient, however, to see her stage. Sitting at a large monitor beside her creative director Barry Lather, she excitedly shares renderings and sketches, including an aerial blueprint that reveals that the stage has been designed to resemble the glittery, teary-eye look that Underwood created for her 2018 album cover Cry Pretty. Computer renderings that depict her high in the air on a center lift—the “iris”—with the stage shrouded in fog below and an innovative transparent fabric scrim approach for video projection make clear that this will be an elaborate production. Lather explains the scrims will be able to move independently and are transparent offering more flexibility with lighting schemes than traditional LED screens. Large runways extend to each side, bringing Underwood and her band closer to the fans.

Jeff Johnson

(From left: Creative director Lather confers with Underwood.)

Lather, who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Donny and Marie Osmond to Rihanna, calls Underwood “super collaborative” and extremely sharp. “You don’t have to show her [complex stage blocking] multiple times.”

Jeff Johnson

(Underwood and her team run through the show at dress rehearsal on the stage modeled after her Cry Pretty “eye” design.)

The crucial element of the show remains the 360 factor, says Underwood, who fell in love with in-the-round performing when collaborating with Lather on the 2016 Storyteller tour.

“I just see so much more of the audience, I feel so much more of the audience,” she says. “And, no offense to how traditional shows are set up, but if you think about it, you’re on one end, you see ten percent of the audience and a lot of times the people in front—I don’t care who you are—they’re going to rest their feet and sit down.” With the eye configuration, the closest audience members to the stage are in a general admission pit and every side of the arena gets a show. “This way, it’s like I can see everybody, there’s moving parts, the band has their moments to be rock stars and, if I’m over here, the guys are connecting with the audience over there. It’s like everybody gets so much more of all of us.”

“Honestly, I was a little worried,” she admits of her first foray into 360 degree production. “Because I feel like you just have to project so much more of yourself everywhere. You have to be big everywhere. And that might not necessarily be my innate strong suit. I love being on stage, I have a super loud voice, but that was a comfort zone, you’re up there, this is your space,” she says indicating the normal demarcation line between an audience and performer. But her fears dissipated when she realized putting out more energy into the crowd meant an exponential return. “The show flew by the last time every single night. And, I know if it’s flying by for me, if I’m never bored, if I’m never not happy and excited and in it, then the crowd has to be loving it that much more too.”

In addition to her innovative staging, Underwood is a leader when it comes to supporting other female artists on tour, part of a trend of women creating networks for each other in the gaps where the industry is letting them down or outright obstructing their potential progress. “Carrie putting her hand out and lifting all of us up, if we ever get to that place, we can do the same thing,” says Hannah Mulholland of Runaway June, who recently released the punchy, assertive single “Buy My Own Drinks.” Both groups will be side stage soaking it all up. “To watch Carrie entertain this size of crowds night after night is going to be really, really exciting,” says Naomi Cooke.

Fans can expect Underwood, who’s come a long way as a performer since winning the 2005 edition of American Idol, to highlight songs from her entire catalog, which has become increasingly stuffed with hits. That dilemma has necessitated a few mash-ups and medleys of both chart toppers and deep cuts. “We call it ‘a walk down memory lane,” she says, adding that trying to figure out how to balance must-do songs like “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Before He Cheats,” and “Something in the Water”—along with new tunes from Cry Pretty and her own favorites—is “a good problem to have.” “I remember touring with one album and being like ‘How the heck am I gonna fill 90 minutes on [stage with] one album?’”

Now, with 65 million albums sold, a truck full of awards won, including seven Grammys, and more than 15 No. 1 singles, Underwood has the luxury—and the power—to do what she likes from having all female openers to including a few personal favorites in the set list to switching up her wardrobe. “I don’t want to wear the same thing every night,” she says. “I have like 3 to 4 outfits per act, and they’ll bring me this big book at the beginning of the day, and I’ll put sticky tabs next to everything that I want to wear. It just allows a little more creative freedom. If I’m feeling edgy I can pick this one, or if I eat whole pizza the night before then I’ll be like ‘Let’s wear the loose stuff today.'”

Creative freedom also means she can perform that medley, which she hopes will be a highlight of the show as she throws a spotlight on her opening acts. And maybe as the tour progresses, she’ll figure out how to fit Patty Loveless in there. “It was hard for me to narrow it down,” she says of the female-focused tribute. “We had to go with what musically made a little more sense, and I was like ‘But what about, but what about, but what about?’” Because when it comes to honoring her country music forebears, Underwood says, “I could go for a really long time.”

The Cry Pretty Tour 360 runs through October 31 hitting 55 cities along the way in the U.S. and Canada.

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