NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Carrie Underwood: Why Her? Why Now?

The CMA Hoopla Was Controversial, but She Deserves Wins

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Carrie Underwood has been the hottest thing going in country music this year. Why her? Why now?

Underwood and Alison Krauss are the only two female country artists to win the CMA’s Horizon and female vocalist awards the same year. Krauss won in 1995; Underwood this past week. One major difference: Krauss had been recording for years. Her breakthrough, 1995’s multi-platinum Now That I’ve Found You, came eight years after the release of her debut album, Too Late to Cry.

Underwood’s breakthrough was her debut album Some Hearts which was released Nov. 15, 2005. It was just certified quadruple platinum for shipments of 4 million copies. She just got her journalism degree in May of this year from Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University. (Interesting that the only two other country artists I know of with journalism degrees are Bill Anderson and Jimmy Buffett.)

Something is up here. What is it?

Well. Beyond the Internet hubbub surrounding Faith Hill’s reaction to Underwood’s win for CMA female vocalist of the year award, there has been a message sweeping through the Internet that was briefly posted on a certain female artist’s official Web site that read, in part, “These awards shows are SO political and we all get fed up with them. We all work very hard and have for many years, so to see someone come in and win female vocalist that has been here for a VERY short time is a little disheartening. That is why we have the Horizon award, and Carrie had an incredible year, enough to sweep that one. I don’t think Faith was angry about her loss, she probably felt, as I did, that Carrie has not paid her dues long enough to fully deserve that award.”

That post was pretty quickly removed, although I still see mentions of it on this certain artist’s CMT message board. Obviously, emotions were running high at the CMA Awards show last Monday night (Nov. 6).

I’ll tell you one thing. Any woman having success in country music fully deserves it. It’s been pretty obvious for years that women in country have a very hard road to traverse. And always have had a tough row to plow. It would be good for every serious country music fan to sometime sit down and read the book Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music by Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann. It would open some eyes to the paths that country women have followed.

Obviously Carrie Underwood — as well as other contemporary women — is reaping the benefits of decades of hard dues-paying by pioneering women artists from Maybelle Carter to Patsy Montana to Texas Ruby to Patsy Cline to Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless and many more.

Underwood has had two No. 1 country hits on the Billboard charts (plus a No. 1 pop hit) in less than a year. Why? Because she’s recording good music and the public likes her and wants to hear her sing. That’s pretty simple.

It was not always that direct and that quick a route for women in country to get accepted as artists and to get access to country audiences. Loretta Lynn first charted a country single on Billboard’s country chart in 1960. She got her first No. 1 Billboard hit in 1966. Dolly Parton first charted in 1967 and got her first No. 1 three years later. Trisha Yearwood debuted with a No. 1 single, but it was three years before she got her second. Patty Loveless first charted in 1985 and got her first No. 1 in 1989. Reba McEntire first charted in 1976 and didn’t get her first No. 1 till 1982.

Did I say Carrie Underwood has had a bunch of them in less than one year? Well, there you go. Others plowed the fields for years before she could sow and reap her crop. But it’s good that they did so, because now it’s working.

I spent a lot of years touring and being backstage and in record label and management offices with both rock and country artists, both men and women, and much of the treatment and attitude I witnessed toward women artists in both fields ranged from condescending to disgusting. And I learned from a few very smart women that they worked much harder than men because they knew that success would give them the power that they needed to rise above all of that muck. And if they have empowered the women artists who have followed them, so much the better.

I know why some women may wonder about Underwood’s rapid rise. Almost all female country artists who have been successful paid dues for years before success came calling. Obviously, Underwood has benefited hugely from the enormous drive of American Idol and the fact that she was its only country winner. And she now enjoys the influential marketing and radio power of the powerful engine that is Sony BMG Nashville, which was responsible for eight of the 10 major CMA Award winners this year.

I’ll tell you what, though. Carrie Underwood is entirely deserving of her success. Like Alison Krauss before her, she brings a fresh and energetic force to country. And that’s why audiences respond to her. She has the talent and the personality and the smarts and the charm. She really is a small-town girl from Checotah, Okla., and it shows. She is country. May she have more progress. And so may all female country artists have continued growth. More power to them.