In the 14 years since Carrie Underwood triumphed on American Idol, she has recorded duets with a throng of fellow vocalists in musical formats ranging from country to pop and gospel to rap (Strangely, no bluegrass. But we can hope.).
On this, her 36th birthday (Sunday, March 10), we revisit and recommend a dozen of her most provocative pairings.
“Bless This Broken Road” with Rascal Flatts (2005)Ray Mickshaw/WireImage
This performance from American Idol finds Underwood going head-to-head and voice-to-voice with Rascal Flatt’s bell-toned Gary Levox. Undergirded by strong lyrics, the result pure harmonic rapture.
“I Told You So” with Randy Travis (2009)
Also from American Idol, there’s plenty of dramatic interplay here between Underwood’s vocal intensity and Travis’ sepulchral gravity, The singers are equally eloquent in conveying the song’s mixture of hope and trepidation. Their single version won them a Grammy for best country collaboration with vocals.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with Elvis Presley (2008)
Underwood’s wistfulness adds a bit of seasonal zest to Presley’s laidback rendering of this holiday chestnut — a distinctive improvement on the King’s original recording.
“I Will Always Love You” with Dolly Parton (2009)
“I Will Always Love You” has become the “Amazing Grace” of love songs — so often sung and over sung that it’s been bleached of all its initial drama. Still, Parton and Underwood are powerful transformers of the mundane when they apply their celestial harmonies to it. And so it is here until they get into a genteel wailing match at the end.
“Remind Me” with Brad Paisley (2011)
Recorded for Paisley’s This Is Country Music album, this is one of Underwood’s most authentic-sounding pairings. As she repeatedly keens “Remind me!” to her under-loving partner, her yearning and desperation become palpable.
“It Had to Be You” with Tony Bennett (2011)
No matter how strong your pipes are, you don’t amp it up when you’re side-by-siding with the great Tony Bennett. So Underwood plays it cool, bluesy and understated here — and it works beautifully.
“How Great Thou Art” with Vince Gill (2011)Christopher Polk/ACMA2011/Getty Images for ACM
Maybe we should call this live performance a trio since Gill’s majestic guitar work in the middle of the hymn constitutes its own separate voice. Underwood, as has become her habit with this song, sings so high and commandingly that she seems to be knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door directly.
“Can’t Stop Loving You” with Aerosmith (2013)
Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty would have had a hell of a romp with this one. When Underwood purrs, “Got me a good old kinda cowboy/He got my picture on the fridge,” you’re looking at country—and you can practically see the apron and Levis flying.
“All Is Well” with Michael W. Smith (2014)
Underwood and Smith escalate vocally from lullaby level to proclamation in this Christmas celebration. Even so, there’s an enchanting sweetness when their voices blend.
“The Fighter” with Keith Urban (2017)
Just as in “Remind Me,” Underwood’s role here is to seek reassurance — “What if I fall? (I won’t let you fall)/What if I cry? (I’ll never make you cry).” Although the lyrics assigned to her don’t make great vocal demands, she delivers them with the concern and urgency they merit.
“The Champion” with Ludacris (2017)
This rat-a-tat-tat pep talk could replace steroids. Underwood does rap like a champion, elevating bravado to a lifestyle in these lyrics that she co-wrote. Ludacris struts through this chest-beating speechifying with a full crown of laurels, as well.
What bluegrass song should she sing? you ask. I’m thinking “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” with Rhonda Vincent. Or Tony Bennett.