Carrie Underwood’s ubiquity transcends her music. From the moment she emerged as the golden-girl winner of American Idol, she’s been bathed in the mainstream spotlight—the magazine covers, the endorsements, Sunday Night Football. A sought-after collaborator, she’s recorded with everyone from Tony Bennett to Aerosmith to Ludacris to Michael W. Smith, as well as Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Randy Travis, Sam Hunt and Brad Paisley.

With her dozenth hostess gig at the CMA Awards, Underwood is taking her all-woman Cry Pretty 360 Tour aesthetic to ABC. Forming a femme-powerment troika with Reba and Dolly, the vocal powerhouse is putting the focus on girl power, the genre’s legacy and how it’s setting the table for the future. As the only woman in the coveted Entertainer of the Year category, she would be only the eighth, as well as the only woman other than Taylor Swift to take the honor during her tenure as CMA Awards host.

But don’t give Carrie the award because she’s a girl. She’s not looking to be good for a girl—she’s looking to be the best in an industry on its own terms. Granted, with radio being XX-chromosome-avoidant, she’s making arguably the best music of her career—and offering a quality that is far more than tilting to radio fodder.

If some think of her as the small-town Oklahoma girl with the big voice, bubbly, sparkly and positive, they’ve missed the point. Underwood is a woman in full—albeit one who loves puppies and kittens—helming a business, doing the work to co-produce her records and drive the creative aspects of a tour that’s sold out Madison Square Garden, Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and the Staples Center.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Entertainer of the Year.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want it, or it’s an honor to be nominated. I’m competitive and committed to what we do. But you know, that award is about so much more than me. It’s about my team, all the people who work so hard with me—from the label to the road people, the musicians, the songwriters, my management, even the fans—because it’s their award, too. I see the fans coming to multiple shows, calling the radio stations, trying to find the music.

I could say, “I’m just doing this for the fans,” because there’s a lot of truth in that. And I’d rather be the person who doesn’t win but should. But I look at the things that go into it: performances, album, tour, vocals, the songs. I want to be the person who truly excels at all those things.

Why is it so much harder for women to win Entertainer?
I’m bad at campaigning. It feels icky to say, “Vote for me!” I don’t like to do stuff like that. Other people might do it, and it feels right for them. I think this stuff has to work for who you are. But it’s everything. When I see the difference between men and women, I realize it’s not just me.

And three women are hosting this year’s CMA Awards too.
And they don’t even need last names. Dolly and Reba are so recognized, they’ve reached that plateau where that’s all they need. So it feels like one of those “Look Ma, I made it” moments. Growing up in Oklahoma, I never thought I’d go to the CMA Awards, let alone be nominated, or perform, or host. And now, it’s with these two legendary women? We definitely had to go back to the drawing board, tear everything up, because we’re really excited about this year.

I’m told there’s going to be a real emphasis on the history this year.
It’s nice to be in a position to get to bring people onstage who haven’t been there for a while. Having reasons for them to be on that stage, to share not just the moment but honoring the music, that’s something I think every one of us [involved in putting the show together] feels very strongly about.

And this advocacy you’re taking is very much in step with the conversation around gender, country music and the fact that you’re quietly putting women front and center.
Nobody can say we aren’t doing everything we possibly could. Trying to get people to change something just to change is never easy. Miranda’s doing an all-woman tour that’s completely different from Cry Pretty 360—and that says something, too, about the depth and different kinds of women.

I look at all these little girls every night who were just like I was. There were so many strong, smart talented ladies who led us to believe we could do this. So many strong, classy talented ladies to look up to. But who do those little girls have? Or who do they get to hear on their radios? So we will keep showing up, showing these artists and hoping people will see it and react.

It’s personal, then.
I only feel that way when I see the difference in men and women, how things work—and it’s not just me. I see Runaway June with “Buy My Own Drinks” going up the charts; I watch them hustle and spend all this time and energy, then they’re just moving up an inch. I hear their song, the songs around it; I see the difference in how that record moves with all the others. It’s sad.

You’re so much more real—and grittier—than people expect onstage.
[Laughs] I feel like at the end of the day, it comes down to the body of work. There are people who [cringing] say, “She’s singing cheating songs and Jesus songs.” But that’s life, and it’s all part of it—the one makes the other necessary. Sometimes I think, “Oh, no. Should I be singing so much about Jesus?” But that’s the devil’s way of trying to dampen the message. I have different songs in different sections for a reason. It gives the show a tone, you know? Bring people up, have fun, get through to them, inspire them. Then have a big finish.

With all the songs you’ve recorded, collaborated on and had hits with, you’ve accrued quite a body of work.
That was the biggest challenge. I was super-pregnant and emotional, so deciding what we were gonna cut was awful. I knew I wanted to put as much music as possible in there. We mashed some up; made some shorter. We used pieces of songs from Cry Pretty during transitions. But it’s hard. And then there’s the rhinestones, the lights, the pyro to fit in too.

People have made so much about the staging, which is incredible, but in the end, I think it’s your voice that’s really the wow factor.
My best performances are when I’m lost in the music and the songs. A lot of them are vocally challenging, and I like pushing myself. Going onstage and giving my all gives me something I can’t get anywhere else.

It’s like a full body slam in a lot of places.
[Laughs] I definitely use my whole body. I have involuntary spasms when I sing, and I don’t even realize. Looking back on performances on TV, I see it—and well, there it is. When you realize when you’re actually singing, it becomes awkward; I think about my limbs, then there’s this mind game.

So what’s your secret? Because you have a lot of production cues to deal with.
I don’t do choreography, because any time I’ve tried, it’s never felt right. There are certain places you have to be for certain things, and I think we rehearse enough that I just get there. Being natural and not involving your brain, it becomes a place of joy. I’m doing what I was born to do—and that takes over. Really, what could be better than that?


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