Carrie Underwood: A Quiet Steward For Women

Carrie Underwood
Jeff Johnson
– Carrie Underwood
performs at the CMA Music Festival at Nissan Stadium in Nashville June 8, 2018.
Carrie Underwood, hair in a loose bun, peeks around the corner split in the middle of an awards show stage. Dressed down in a faded black Guns ‘N Roses tee, there’s nothing muted about the smile that flashes across her face as Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye join Chrissy Metz, making her live singing debut, Mickey Guyton and Lauren Alaina for “I’m Standing With You.”
Metz’s song is the end theme of “Breakthrough,” the true-life film she’s currently starring in, but it also could be the underlying theme of Underwood’s 2019 touring life. Though the Oklahoma born superstar will offer a high-gloss, big production performance of “Southbound” from her platinum Cry Pretty on CBS’ live broadcast of the 54th Academy of Country Music Awards show, she’s here on a Saturday morning to rehearse someone else’s number.
Introducing, then walking in at the song’s end at  full vocal force, gives Metz’s moment the impact it deserves. In a world where TV stars get shoe-horned into music awards shows in the name of “cross-promotion,” having the impossibly blond former “American Idol” winner legitimizes the moment. 
Though low key and deflecting attention to the other vocalists, make no mistake, without Carrie Underwood, this wouldn’t be must-see TV. Quietly, without saying anything to anyone, the mother/performer/songwriter/co-producer has turned into a steward for female artists seeking to be heard in a Y-chromosome-laden white noise churn. 
Carrie & Co.
Jason Kempin / Getty Images
– Carrie & Co.
Carrie Underwood (third from left) is bringing up-and- comers Maddie & Tae (left, Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye) and Runaway June (right, Hannah Mulholland Naomi Cooke and Jennifer Wayne) on her Cry Pretty Tour which kicks off May 1.

Eyes down, listening to catch the wave of the Diane Warren power ballad, she takes her first step, lifts the mic to her lips – and delivers that power-soprano shaft of bright light that served as her signature going on 15 years. In that moment, the “This Is Us” star, who’s never sung in public before, and the younger female artists who appeared on the “Breakthrough” soundtrack are transformed. Standing alongside Underwood, holding their own vocally, “I’m Standing With You” becomes a pledge of solidarity no matter what the stakes are.

“I knew, when it was presented to us, it could be a bigger play,” acknowledges ACM Awards executive producer R.A. Clark.“It wasn’t just the film, but for country music, the Academy, their Lifting Lives charity; but to do that, it needed something more. And listening to the words, you knew in the right context, the message was important on a lot of levels.”
As so often happens at the network level, Carrie Underwood – a woman of impossibly high TVQ – got the call. And as the inexhaustible mother of two so often does, she said. “Yes.” But her “yes” isn’t a show up and stumble through, it’s a full-on commitment to bring it. As Clark explains, “She was the music driver who knew how to fold all those women into this song – and give them their moment. Their moment is what’s important to her, and you can feel it the second the performance starts. 
“Edgar Struble (music director) and Raj Kapoor (co-executive producer) realize it. But in the end, it comes down to those women singing this song, expressing this sentiment. For the country music community, it’s about women coming together. Without Carrie, it doesn’t have the same impact; but she invested in it, and that amplified everything.”
Amplifying is, perhaps, what Underwood does best. Though it’s tempting to take the fresh-faced superstar for granted, the numbers don’t lie. She has sold upwards of 65 million albums, scored 15 No. 1 country singles, won seven Grammys, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 13 American Music Awards, 10 Billboard Music Awards and seven Country Music Association Awards, a show she’s co-hosted for the last 11 years.
Her 2016 Storyteller: Stories in the Round Tour grossed $58 million dollars and played to 845,681 fans over 80 shows, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. Her 2019 Cry Pretty Tour, which kicks off May 1 in Greensboro, N.C. – and is on track to match, or surpass, those numbers. Largely sold out, in some cases almost a year in advance, the two-hour show of back-to-back-to-back hits is as significant for being an all-female bill as it is for Underwood’s always cutting edge production, very physical performance and her full-throttle vocals.
At a time when young women struggle to make even the lowest rungs of country radio playlists, the format’s biggest superstar is bringing “Girl In A Country Song” duo Maddie & Tae and newcomers Runaway June on tour with her. If she loses the built-in “back announcing” bump that comes with carefully sifting through rising artists with building chart success, Underwood isn’t bound to that kind of promotion to sell out.
Jeff Frasco, Underwood’s longtime agent at CAA, sees the engagement as a win. “It was pretty simple. Carrie wanted to help some female artists, and I think empowering a generation of young women artists (and fans) is everything she’s about. It makes a statement about empowerment from a woman who sells out arenas anywhere she plays.”
UMG Nashville President Cindy Mabe laughs, then says emphatically. “Who has the biggest Q Factor in country music? Carrie Underwood! They don’t build TV shows in this format, or outside this format without her. It’s not about metrics, or how many butts someone can put in seats, because she’s going to do that. She may not be as loud as I am, but she’s going to keep using her platform to make a difference, to keep bringing women onstage with her.”
Mabe should know, as she was the product manager vested with navigating Underwood’s musical ascendance coming off “American Idol” in 2005. Remembering a quiet teenager just learning how to fly on her own, she was faced with intense expectations. 
“She’s always been here to compete,” Mabe recalls. “Anywhere we went right after she came off the show, there’d be 300 people, all wanting autographs. When she couldn’t sign them all, the names they’d call her. At the [2005] CMAs in New York, some of the other artists [weren’t friendly]. But Carrie just went in the bathroom, threw up, came out and crushed her minute-thirty – and we went on to sell 8 million records!”  

Cri de coeur:
Randee St.Nicholas
– Cri de coeur:
Photo outtake from Carrie Underwood
That tenacity has underscored Underwood’s growth. Yes, a small-town girl with a very real sense of kindness and fun, she’s become an Every(Young)Woman for the 21st Century. As the woman who’s sung the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” theme since 2013 has evolved, so has her audience.
AEG’s Debra Rathwell, who’s promoted Underwood since her very first headlining tour in 2006, has watched it. “Starting out, there was a mix of ‘Idol’ people and country music people, but Carrie was always so clear. She could’ve gone pop, but she knew who she wanted to be: a country artist. She lives it, breathes it, eats it – and builds it. She is a country performer, who’s built a show that can compete with anybody an any genre.”
“I think it was definitely on my mind,” Underwood, whose stage set-up takes the classic 360 round into a more catwalk/runway format for the 2019 Cry Pretty Tour, allows of her all girl line-up. “But really, I’m the kind of person who’s competitive, who wants to put on the best show I can! That’s a lot of what I’m thinking about. I want to support talent, and yes, they’re all women, but these artists are very talented at what they do.”
Underwood pauses. “You look at my audience, you see tons of little girls. Why wouldn’t they want to see other super-talented young women?”
Rathwell concurs. While Maddie & Tae and Runaway June aren’t radio regulars – yet – there is the organic bond and career development aspect that fuels this lineup. The veteran promoter explains, “Carrie did the ‘‘CMT: Artist Of The Year’’ show with Runaway June and Maddie & Tae last year – and they did all these big girl songs, Shania Twain, Tammy Wynette – and it was spectacular. You could see the energy, and the fun!” 
That includes creating a show that’s bigger, better and more than her very personal Storyteller Tour. Employing runways allows her to get closer to the audience than ever before “and that includes my band, too. We’re all going to be able to look even more people in the eye.”
With 18 trucks, 11 buses, 407 moving lights and 142 audio speaker cabinets, she’s building a world for her music onstage. If she once flew over the audience’s head in a pickup truck, the Cry Pretty Tour is about maximizing and digging deep into her catalogue. She explains, “I want the hits in there, the songs people have been singing for 13 years. But every song from Cry Pretty is in there, too. Some may only be a quick snippet while I’m changing, 30 seconds, but the album is part of it. 
“We’re going to start off fun, and be entertaining,” she continues. “We won’t hit’em over the head until the middle. Then we’re going to end in an uptempo, uplifting way. Last tour, it was ‘Something In The Water.’ This tour, it’s going to be ‘Love Wins.’”
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Having wrangled with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler on the Academy of Country Music Awards, thrown down with both Keith Urban on “The Fighter” and Miranda Lambert on “Something Bad’s About To Happen” and got her rap on with Ludacris on “The Champion,” she is musically fearless. Joking, “Sometimes I have to kick my leg up to hit that note,” she is a staggeringly physical performer who often throws her entire body into a note.
Offstage, she is a “do it, don’t talk about it” woman. It’s why no one involved in her career was surprised at this year’s all-female bill. Quietly, she offers, “I feel like it’s all of our responsibility, the men as well as the women. Throughout history women have been a big part of our format – and it’s up to us to make sure the woman’s voice doesn’t die out.”
Quietly conscious, the empowerment extends to supporting the bill beyond just rolling into town. As Rathwell explains, “One of the things we’ve done – since this tour was announced in September as part of her album roll-out – is anywhere Maddie & Tae or Runaway June want to play, we’ve approved it, and anything we can do to help, we’ve been all about it. They’ve done fairs, radio shows, talking about coming out with Carrie. It’s all about building.” Putting her marketing and her money where her passion is, UMG President Mabe is reaching beyond the obvious integration points to make sure Underwood is maximizing her tour dates. With a global arena tour – UK and Canadian dates have been announced – underway, her advertising and promotional reach includes “Sunday Night Football,” Bravo, Disney XD, E! OWN, TLC, HGTV and ESPN, as well as targeted local primetime buys. 
Geo-targeting social media and streaming services, the focus on getting to the fans is dialed in. A “Champion” tour contest is being staged, where fans submit video rapping Ludacris’ part on the song. Fans also submit their own stories of what the song means to them, with a winner selected each night to be part of “The Champion.” 
That kind of excitement is contagious. WBWL-FM Program Director Ginny Brophey is ready – and Boston’s sold out TD Garden show isn’t until October. As she notes, “The week Carrie Underwood’s in town, we don’t want to miss that moment.”
Currently playing “Love Wins,” Brophey has 22 Underwood songs in varying states of recurrent play – and that frequency of play will increase as the show draws near.
Though there’s no Maddie & Tae or Runaway June currently on the playlist, Brophey knows WBWL’s audience awareness is rising. “Carrie is leading by example. We’re already talking about this bill on the air. For the people who might not think about it [being all women], now they are. 
“And [for Maddie & Tae and Runaway June] we will have them in to the studio here, for interviews or an acoustic performance. We will make them part of ticket giveaways, make them part of the entire experience. And then, hopefully, the people who’ve gone and checked them out will keep listening. And once the radius clause is done, we’ll bring them back. This is a building market.”
Boston is hardly an anomaly. KKBQ-FM Houston’s Music Director Christy Brooks notes that while her market is home to the legendary Houston Rodeo & Livestock Show “with 22 concerts in 30 days,” an appearance by Underwood “that’s all ladies stands out. It’s going to be a girl’s night out, and people are already talking about it. I think it’s going to be a blast. The Runaway June girls are a blast of excitement, and Maddie & Tae are so much fun.
“Then when Carrie gets up there. She’s the face of our format, and when she controls a stage, there’s nothing like her. She’s exciting, she’s so powerful and strong – and she seems like someone we could know. That draws people in,” Brooks marvels. “I mean, we’re all Carrie Underwood in our car!”
With plans for hotel room and makeover giveaways, possibly a charitable tie-in with a woman’s shelter, Brooks sees the excitement about Underwood’s tour as being something even more than just the quality of the music. “This tour is just the beginning. It’s going to be the perfect way to prove the idea that women don’t listen to women is wrong.
“It’s up to us at radio stations to help it along. But a concert that’s all ladies is a good start. It shows that country fans want to hear women, and then we need to stay with it, to push the envelope a little, play Ashley McBryde and some of them.”
CAA’s Frasco, who also represents Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks, Miley Cyrus, as well as Lenny Kravitz and Chris Isaak, sees the response as something more. The father of two daughters in their 20s, he recognizes Underwood’s larger frame. “My daughters like it because it’s honest, great music from the heart. And it’s a perspective you don’t normally get to hear from a young woman in any genre. There’s a lot of empowerment here, and I think there needs to be a lot more of it.”
A Quiet Steward:
Photo by Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic
– A Quiet Steward:
Carrie Underwood performing onstage at the 2018 CMT Music Awards at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on June 6, 2018.

“For women, this is their moment,” AEG’s Rathwell agrees. “There’s this attitude of ‘Let’s go!’ And you know, why not? Nashville is tough on women, but Carrie’s just doing it – doing it with an incredible show, a really strong fan base, but she’s doing it. It’s a whole new paradigm, but I think it’s a good way to show people how great women artists are.”
For Mabe, whose company is also home to Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton and George Strait, the proof is inside her office. Laughing, she concedes, “This is the most in-demand tour in the building. And this is a huge win for little girls.
“Carrie has certainly had all those opportunities, but she’s worked her ass off and made every one count. She wants to use that to lift up other women. Every decision’s been made by Carrie and Ann (Edelblute, her manager), don’t kid yourself. She’s grown into a woman who balances a career, two children, a husband, a fashion design business, writing and making records – and she wants to give people the same kind of show she wants to see.”