When Carrie Underwood sings a big song – and for this theatrical country music superstar, they’re all big songs – she leans slightly at the waist, tilting her upper body to the floor, as she reaches out her arm left behind her as though to steady herself.
The pose makes for dramatic imagery, as the former “American Idol” winner certainly understands. But given how well she sings, it could also be a physical necessity: Headlining the Stagecoach country festival on Saturday night, Underwood sent her voice ringing out across the expanse of the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. , with such intensity that you could see the veins protruding from his forehead.
And that was before Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose showed up for a surprise cameo that literalizes the hair-metal legacy of Underwood’s music – and leads the 39-year-old to utter Saturday “the greatest night of my life”.
With Underwood’s all-sparkling wardrobe, including a dazzling GNR romper she wore in honor of her special guest, the singer’s vocal athleticism marks her as a clear successor to the bigger pop-country divas. than nature of the 1990s and early 2000s. But if she’s not alone in her millennial admiration for Faith Hill and Shania Twain, she may be the only Nashville star on her level to champion their once dominant aesthetic. (Consider that Twain, who headlined Stagecoach in 2017, recently returned to the wilderness not for Stagecoach but for Coachella, where she appeared with Harry Styles.)
For young women getting into country music today, Underwood’s generational peer and former duet partner Miranda Lambert wields a much stronger influence: an expert songwriter with a more free-spirited, improvisational attitude, Lambert is the one you can hear and see in Lainey Wilson and Hailey Whitters and Morgan Wade. Like other genres in the age of social media, country has moved away from pageantry towards relatability; even the discourse surrounding Dolly Parton, a figure no less crucial to Lambert than to Underwood, shifted to emphasize Parton’s ingenuity and self-determination over her flair for razzle-dazzle showbiz.
All of this leaves Underwood in an interesting position as she gears up for the release of her first major studio album (not including a Christmas record and gospel single) since 2018’s “Cry Pretty.” is titled “Denim & Rhinestones”, which says a lot about Underwood’s faith in its approach.
Introducing the album’s title track on Saturday — a bright ’80s bop with echoes of Whitney Houston and Fleetwood Mac — she pointed to her flashy outfit and told the crowd, “I practice what I preach, people. “
“Ghost Story,” the LP’s lead single, didn’t immediately take off on country radio (though a very Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper duet with Jason Aldean, “If I Didn’t Love You,” topped the charts. Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart last year). Yet Underwood, who has a popular residence at Resorts World in Las Vegas, could still draw tens of thousands to his set at Stagecoach, where the weekend line-up also included Thomas Rhett, Brothers Osborne, Luke Combs, Margo Price and Maren Morris.
Which has allowed Underwood to keep connecting even when the country music changes around her — beyond the simple spectator-sport pleasure of listening to someone set a high note, then hold it for ages. – it’s the delicate balance she finds between seriousness and camp. Apparently half of Underwood’s songs feature pulpy revenge fantasies against good-for-nothing men, and here she pulled off melodrama in “Church Bells” and “Blown Away” and the immortal “Before He Cheats” while somehow honoring the emotional weight of real-life struggle for women like its characters.
She found pathos in the worn shots of “Cry Pretty,” which featured actual fireworks to go along with the metaphorical genre. And she mixed “Jesus, Take the Wheel” – a bumper sticker looking song – with a bit of the Christian hymn “How Great Thou Art” to surprisingly moving effect. A choir flanked the singer for that one, then stayed for “See You Again,” which Underwood dedicated to Naomi Judd, whose death was announced on Saturday. (Ahead of Underwood on the festival’s main stage, the Osborne Brothers offered their own tribute with a close-harmony rendition of The Judds’ “Why Not Me.”)
It wasn’t that Underwood was looking for something deeper than emphasis in his music; instead, she used the power of her voice — her muscular low end and especially her moaning upper register — to bring the bombshell to life.
Considering his singing quality, one had to wonder if Rose bit off more than he could chew when he agreed to join Underwood for two GNR classics near the end of the gig. In fact, the 60-year-old frontman, who hasn’t been seen much since his band wrapped up a leg of their lengthy comeback tour last fall, nailed the meandering melodies and choppy beats of “Sweet Child O ‘Mine’ and ‘Paradise City’ with precision and just the right amount of wicked charm.
Clutching one of his signature clown-nose microphones, his hair blowing back in the desert wind, Rose meandered across the stage, a little slower than before but sporting a smile that suggested he was enjoying himself.
And why not? For all their differences in age and background, in Underwood he had found a top star who still believes in the show — and who still believes in it.