EVERY NIGHT, before Carrie Underwood slips into her concert outfit and readies herself under the arena stage, she kisses her 18-month-old son Isaiah goodnight and puts him to bed.
Once she grabs ahold of the mic—in Chicago or Phoenix or Kansas City or Houston—she looks out at the sea of fans, their screams a welcoming symphony, and kicks things into gear with “Renegade Runaway.” But first, she has to talk herself up in order to “get out on stage and be Carrie Underwood.”
“When the lights go down, and everybody is cheering, and I’m underneath the stage, standing on the lift, I definitely get an adrenaline rush,” she says. “I like knowing numbers, so I’ll tell myself, ‘16,000 people came out here tonight. They paid their hard-earned money. They’re here, they’re excited, and you’ve got this.’ I talk myself up so that when the lights are on me, I’m off to a running start.”
Carrie has played more than 500 shows since winning American Idol in 2005, so it would seem she has officially got this. And yet, she’s still very much that quiet girl from Checotah, Oklahoma, who needs a pep talk before she can be the star of her own sold-out concerts.
On this year’s Storyteller tour, she’s making close to 100 stops in nearly 100 cities, but her roots as a performer go all the way back to singing in church at 3 years old. She’s played every kind of stage, from the 10-by-10 wooden platforms of county fairs to the center stages of the arenas she frequents today. In between, there have also been laid-back amphitheaters where she tells stories and connects one-on-one with fans. (Although, she admits, a rowdy arena crowd feeding her 90 minutes of energy is good for her soul.)
The gift she has for making any stage feel like home comes from singing in church choirs and school plays, and when she joined a band as a teenager, playing bars in nearby Fort Smith, Arkansas (her mom shuttled her the hour each way). Her live shows now pull something from every single one of those performances. “I don’t necessarily remember the first time I took a stage, because I was always the entertainment. At family reunions, my parents were always so proud—almost embarrassingly so—and they’d be like, ‘Carrie, sing.’ That all helped get me used to being in front of people.”
Once she’d honed her craft, she did some time on the fair and fest circuit. When she was around 15, the Underwoods would joke that Carrie opened for superstar country band Diamond Rio at a fest in Arkansas. “But I totally didn’t open for Diamond Rio. I’d go on at noon and they’d play that night.”
Her only pre-show ritual back then was to climb into the ruffled satin skirt and vest her mother sewed for her (and cowgirl boots—there were always cowgirl boots), and then curl her blond hair until she had a head full of uniform ringlets. Now that she’s older, a little wiser, all she insists on is a goodnight kiss from Isaiah and a backstage prayer with her band every night.
During those early years, Carrie was doing more than just blossoming into a country singer. She was turning into a genuine country fan. She saw her first concert—Alan Jackson and Faith Hill at a fair—when she was 10. Next came a handful of shows by Bryan White, a fellow Okie who peaked in the mid ’90s, right when she was learning what it meant to really get behind an artist. “I was a member of his fan club … I had the posters, I had a membership card, I had a pillowcase. I’m pretty sure that pillowcase is still floating around some place.”
With her touring schedule, it’s tough to find time to fangirl like she used to. But in the past few years she’s managed to catch Garth Brooks, Coldplay, Bon Jovi, and Keith Urban. Her pillowcase days are likely behind her, though.
Instead, she’s turned her affection elsewhere. Her baby Isaiah, often rocking his Carrie Underwood All Access T-shirt, will be on the road with her through November. Just like other parents, her Instagram is filled with his every move—Isaiah watching Disney cartoons, Isaiah snuggling on the tour bus, Isaiah asleep in the studio with his dad (the Nashville Predators’ Mike Fisher).
And like those other parents, Carrie is always searching for that elusive, perfect balance. “I want to be a great mom, a great artist, and a great entertainer. We’re all about trying to figure it out,” she says, “and make sure that nothing is suffering.”
Originally published September 2016
Alison Bonaguro writes for Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and CMT.com.