100 Greatest Women, #20: Carrie Underwood

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#20

Carrie Underwood

2008 Edition: #59 (+39)

With a voice that could’ve made her a legend in any era of country music, Carrie Underwood is one of the most commercially successful female artists of the 21st century.

Her breakthrough came through the biggest show on television, American Idol. She was one of thousands who auditioned for season four and by that point, the show had established itself more as a ratings winner than a record seller. Previous winners Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia released debut albums that sold respectably, but nothing on a scale that would seem to match the show’s ratings success.

Enter Carrie Underwood. When she auditioned with the Bonnie Raitt classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the tone of her voice signaled her country leanings. Throughout the Idol season, she built a fan base quickly. The belief was that it was the year of the guys, but after she performed Heart’s “Alone” on the Top 11 show, judge Simon Cowell made a bold prediction: “You’ll not only win this show, you’ll go on to sell more records than any previous Idol winner.”

She did go on to win the show, never even visiting the bottom three. After her win, she released the obligatory post-victory single, a pop ballad called “Inside Your Heaven.” Strong sales made it a #1 pop hit, but country radio showed some interest as well, giving it moderate airplay. When she released her first real single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” radio jumped on it immediately. It entered at #39 and rapidly rose to the top, spending 6 weeks at #1.

The success of that single was a strong beginning for her debut album, Some Hearts, which would eventually sell more than eight million copies. She took home ACM trophies in 2007 for Top New Female Vocalist and Single for “Wheel.” Her next release, “Don’t Forget to Remember Me,” went to #2.

Then her label released “Before He Cheats,” and it was a bigger hit than “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” It not only topped the country singles chart, but got massive crossover airplay, too. Awards began to roll in, with a shocked Underwood receiving the CMA award for Female Vocalist, along with Horizon Award. Underwood was only the fourth act to win both the Horizon and their vocalist race in the same year, following Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, and the Dixie Chicks. Underwood also picked up two Grammys three months later, including Best New Artist. “Wasted” became another #1 hit, and her charity single “I’ll Stand By You” sold so well that it entered the top ten of the pop singles chart the week it was released.

Obviously, the pressure was on to follow up her debut album. Carnival Ride featured a more country sound and several songs co-written by Carrie herself. The album produced four #1 singles and sold more than four million copies.  On the fifth single, a cover of the Randy Travis hit “I Told You So,” the legend himself recorded a guest vocal, and it returned him to the top five of the country chart.  Travis invited Underwood to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 2008, which she enthusiastically accepted.

Underwood continued to grow as a vocalist and a songwriter on Play On, her third studio set, which was released in 2009 and eventually sold over three million copies. The set produced another three #1 singles, a tally she further added to when she collaborated with her frequent CMA Awards co-host Brad Paisley on his 2011 single, “Remind Me.” It was off the strength of this album that Underwood became the first woman to win the ACM Entertainer of the Year award twice.

After taking some personal time to get married, Underwood returned to the studio to complete her fourth studio album. Released in 2012, Blown Away earned Underwood her strongest critical notices to date, and the title track became a signature hit, winning her another Grammy for her growing collection. It also marked her maturation into one of the genre’s top touring acts, as the Blown Away Tour played to over one million fans around the world. In 2013, she starred in a live performance of The Sound of Music, which was a ratings smash and kicked off an ongoing trend of live musicals being aired as network television events.

She scored another #1 hit in 2014 with her hit collaboration with Miranda Lambert, “Somethin’ Bad.” Underwood then released a two disc hits collection, Greatest Hits: Decade #1, which included the Grammy-winning #1 hit, “Something in the Water.” That track not only topped the country chart, but also became her first #1 on the Christian Singles chart. Her fifth studio set, Storyteller, followed, and its success helped her earn her first CMA nomination for Entertainer of the Year and her fourth Female Vocalist victory, both in 2016.

Underwood switched labels following Storyteller, and in the interim, scored another big hit with “The Fighter,” a 2017 duet with Keith Urban.  In 2018, following an accident at home that required a lengthy recovery, she returned to the charts with “Cry Pretty,” the lead single from her sixth studio album that is slated for release on September 14, 2018.  She also had another gold single through a collaboration with Ludacris on “The Champion,” recorded as a theme song for the Super Bowl.

Essential Singles

  • Jesus, Take the Wheel, 2005
  • Before He Cheats, 2006
  • Just a Dream, 2008
  • I Told You So (with Randy Travis), 2009
  • Cowboy Casanova, 2009
  • Temporary Home, 2009
  • Good Girl, 2012
  • Blown Away, 2012
  • Something in the Water, 2014
  • Church Bells, 2016

Essential Albums

  • Some Hearts, 2005
  • Carnival Ride, 2007
  • Play On, 2009
  • Blown Away, 2012

Industry Awards

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • Some Hearts, 2007
    • Entertainer of the Year, 2009, 2010
    • Gene Weed Special Achievement Award, 2014
    • Lifting Lives Gary Haber Award, 2016
    • Music Video of the Year
      • Before He Cheats, 2007
      • Forever Country, 2017
    • Single of the Year
      • Jesus, Take the Wheel, 2006
    • Top Female Vocalist, 2007, 2008, 2009
    • Top New Female Vocalist, 2006
    • Triple Crown Award, 2010
    • Vocal Event of the Year
      • The Fighter (with Keith Urban), 2018
  • British Country Music Awards
    • International Album of the Year
      • Blown Away, 2013
  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Chairman’s Award, 2016
    • Female Vocalist, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2016
    • Horizon Award, 2006
    • International Artist Achievement Award, 2017
    • Single of the Year
      • Before He Cheats, 2007
  • Dove Awards
    • Country Recorded Song of the Year
      • Jesus, Take the Wheel, 2006
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best Country Collaboration With Vocals
      • I Told You So (with Randy Travis), 2010
    • Best Country Solo Vocal Performance
      • Blown Away, 2013
      • Something in the Water, 2015
    • Best Female Country Vocal Performance
      • Jesus, Take the Wheel, 2007
      • Before He Cheats, 2008
      • Last Name, 2009
    • Best New Artist, 2007

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #19. Miranda Lambert

Previous: #21. Brenda Lee

12 Comments

  1. I feel like I should familiarize myself with Carrie more. Going from the airplay the first two Essential Singles get on one of our pop stations (at least when I actively listened in the early-mid 2010s) – “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” – I didn’t really consider her one of the great female country voices of our generation, as she is often stated to be. One of my grandfathers seems to be a big fan, though.

  2. Carrie Underwood is one of my favorite country artist and vocalist of the last decade. She’s easily the best pure vocalist in mainstream country. Carrie has a crazy range and it leaves me in awe. She has gotten better with each album that she has put out. My favorites are Some Hearts, Play On, and Blown Away. My favorite track from Carrie is Blown Away with Before He Cheats is a close second. Carrie is carving her a great legacy in country music and I’m glad I’m getting to witness it.

  3. #20 seems a little disrespectful. Top selling country artist in Neilson history. Record for most #1 songs country songs since 1991. No mention of any humanitarian efforts. Constant leader of gender equality in country music.

  4. @Kevin, I think when the list is finished you will find this is a pretty good placement for Carrie. She is very good, but when you look at others that will probably be in the top 10 or so (Loretta, Dolly, Tammy, etc.) it will make sense. #20 is very high when you think of it as “all time”

  5. I think that Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are the defining female artists of their generation, and I don’t envision a scenario where they don’t move up even more if we do this again in ten years.

  6. I think that All American Girl should be listed as an essential single. It was a big hit for Carrie. It went double platinum and was number 1 on the country music charts for two weeks.

  7. @ Kevin:

    Given how ultra-fickle the industry is, I wonder if either Carrie or Miranda will still be around in another ten years. This seems especially true as they appear to be the only two female artists around who get any regular airplay at all any more on country radio…and even that is crumbs now, compared to before the toxic Bro-Country “movement” reared its ugly head in 2013.

    In terms of Carrie, I have always been kind of hot-and-cold on her. Material like “Blown Away” and “Just A Dream” are pretty good, but some of it is fairly heavy-handed (I didn’t think too much of “Somethin’ Bad”, which seemed more Miranda than Carrie). That said, though, I have good memories of her going way “off the reservation” at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Linda Ronstadt to sing “Different Drum”.

  8. I wish they’d asked Trisha Yearwood to participate in that induction, too. But the Linda Ronstadt influence on Carrie Underwood’s vocal style is patently clear. Ronstadt could’ve killed it on Idol if she was just starting out, between the range of her voice and the breadth of her musical knowledge.

  9. Perhaps Linda would have gone on American Idol if she were starting out today. But as it is, and for better or worse, she has a strong disdain for shows like Idol, because, to her way of thinking, they foster the kind of competition that belongs in sports and not in art.

    I too had wanted Trisha to be there, since she is the one, seemingly above all of the many women in country music over the last three decades that Linda has influenced, who has been the most singularly vocal about Linda’s influence on her personally. But as it is, they could have done far worse than Carrie; and anyway, they got Emmylou, Sheryl Crow, Bonie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and the late Glenn Frey in there as well to make it a very good night for Linda. And Carrie did ace “Different Drum” in her solo turn, so I’m not disappointed.

  10. There’s no denying her vocal prowess, but I’ve always found her song choices to be a little uninspired and too safe.

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