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Along with releases by Kenny Chesney and Big & Rich, the most anticipated country album this fall might be Carrie Underwood's "Some Hearts." The 22-year-old Underwood became the fourth winner of Fox's "American Idol" TV series in May and, with her debut album just released, the country music industry is hoping that she'll help reverse a 10 percent slide in sales this year by translating her popularity with the show's nearly 30 million U.S. viewers into record sales.
"Look at all the exposure she's had. You'd expect it to be a lot like Kelly Clarkson," said Bill Kennedy, vice president of sales for Capitol Records Nashville.
Clarkson, the first "American Idol" winner, has had six top 10 singles and two albums in the top five. Her first album, "Thankful," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's album chart in 2003.
Underwood, who has a big, full voice like one of her country music heroes, Martina McBride, released a pop single in June, "Inside Your Heaven," that was chosen for her -- or for whoever won, for that matter -- by "American Idol" producers. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard's singles sales chart and has sold 434,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, but it didn't fly on country radio.
"Some Hearts," released on the Arista label, is closer to what viewers heard from her on the TV show, where she performed songs by McBride, Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks and Jo Dee Messina.
She co-wrote the tune "I Ain't in Checotah Anymore," an ode to her small-town roots in Oklahoma, and "Before He Cheats," a dark song about a woman so angry with her boyfriend that she takes a baseball bat to his
The first single, the ballad "Jesus, Take the Wheel," cracked the top 25 after two weeks, and Underwood performed it during the Country Music Association awards on Nov. 15.
" 'Jesus, Take the Wheel' and a lot of the other stuff on the album is more representative of what I want to do," she said.
'A dual approach'
Marketing "Some Hearts" will be tricky. Arista Nashville, a division of RCA Label Group, is partnering with 19 Recordings and J Records in New York to work Underwood's debut.
"It's a dual approach," said RCA Label Group Chairman Joe Galante, who said his Nashville office will handle country radio promotion for "Jesus, Take the Wheel" as well as other marketing and promotion efforts in the country community.
The J Records staff is working the album's title track to top 40 and adult contemporary radio as well as taking the record to retail.
Underwood is depending on both labels to shepherd her efforts.
"They know what they're doing," she said. "I'm a country singer, but because of my exposure on 'American Idol,' I might tend to cross over naturally."
In recording the album with producers Mark Bright and Dann Huff, Underwood says it was important to "keep things as country as possible."
Her manager, Simon Fuller (who heads the 19 imprint) suggested she meet with Nashville writers. That turned into a weekend retreat that resulted in "I Ain't in Checotah Anymore."
Meanwhile, she is buying a home in Nashville and looks forward to more co-writing opportunities.
She is happy to work with and learn from others in the industry.
For her debut, she said, "I just wanted to sing songs that I really enjoyed singing, so I didn't put too much pressure on myself to come up with songs."
At this stage, she said, she is still adjusting to her newfound celebrity. "I never thought that any of this would actually happen to me," she said. "These kinds of things only happen to imaginary characters on television or in the movies ... not real people."
Learning the ropes
Beneath the glamour, Underwood is still a hometown girl. It was charmingly apparent at the CMA awards, where she tried to get her mom, Carol, to stop stepping on her sleek, red gown.
She said she was grateful her new album opened the same day as the awards show. "Instead of going through it all twice, this mashed everything together," she said.
Later backstage, she said: "I went to a record store this morning and bought my album. ... It's been surreal."
But she said she's feeling more comfortable.
"It's something you don't get used to, but it gets easier."
It's a long way from where she began. Born and raised on a farm, Underwood, the youngest of three girls, began singing in church and later in school musicals and talent shows.
After high school, she all but gave up on the idea of singing professionally.
"It was kind of like a stupid dream to me," she recalled.
"I thought it was never going to happen, so why waste my time trying to do only that?"
She attended Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., where she studied journalism.
She never quit singing, though. During summers she performed, and after seeing a TV report about people sleeping outside for an "American Idol" audition in Cleveland, she and her mother drove through the night to the one in St. Louis.
"Everyone always told me I needed to try out for it, but I was too chicken," she said.
Underwood isn't shy about her shyness.
She readily describes herself as quiet and says she gets nervous speaking to large groups.
During the interview she was reserved, answering questions but seldom volunteering more.
"A lot of people get the impression that I might not be nice," she said, "but I'm just a quiet person."
She is reserved but tenacious.
Once she made it onto "Idol," her expectations grew. At first she just wanted to see how far she could go. Then she wanted to make the top 12 because it meant a shot at a recording contract -- then the top 10, because it would get her on the "American Idol" tour.
"After 10, it was like icing on the cake," she said. "At about (the top) 4, I thought, 'Hey, I've got a one in four chance of winning.' "
Since her win, she has traveled nonstop, and she's discovering that being a famous singer isn't as glamorous as she thought.
"I always envisioned that I'd get up and have someone do my hair and makeup, then I'd go out and sing that night and it would be great," she said, "but we try to pack the days as full as we can to try to maximize the time.
"I consider my youth to be a very important asset right now."
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