Randee St. Nicholas/Courtesy of the artist
As the fourth season winner of American Idol, Carrie Underwood is one of the most successful byproducts of the reality talent show. Instead of fizzling out after her win or becoming a footnote within the show's history, Underwood has become maybe the biggest star in modern country music. She has sold over 16 million albums and racking up over a dozen No. 1 Billboard Hot Country Song hits, like "Before He Cheats" and "Jesus, Take the Wheel." Underwood's latest album, Cry Pretty, out now, pushes her creative boundaries and leans into modern R&B, while retaining the Oklahoma singer-songwriter's country roots.
The lines separating country from R&B and pop have always been thin, but lately, that's more true than ever. Underwood's stylistic pivot can be heard on the single, "The Champion," which features Ludacris, so the mix of styles on her new album is no big surprise.
I'm also not surprised by how great parts of this album sound. Underwood's voice owns pretty much anything it touches. Songs like "Drinkin' Alone," is one part drown-your-sorrows country, and two parts Amy Winehouse soul.
What is surprising about Cry Pretty is not just one, but two songs about gun violence. Mainstream country artists used to weigh in regularly on controversial issues — think Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash — but since the heyday of the Dixie Chicks, musicians, particularly in the country genre, seem scared to risk it.
Carrie Underwood is proving to be an exception. She addressed domestic violence in her 2016 hit "Church Bells," and on a new song from this album called "The Bullet," she charts the effect of a man's death on the generations that follow. "The Bullet" doesn't address gun laws, and it doesn't mention the 58 people shot dead at a country music festival in Las Vegas last year. But, unquestionably, it conjures them. As does "Love Wins," a song that rhymes "Politics and prejudice" with "How the hell'd it ever come to this?" It's a good question and one that Underwood doesn't answer. But that's our job. Hers is making massively popular country records, something she does masterfully. The fact that she's engaging an issue most of her industry peers have met with deafening silence, is one more reason to admire her.