What a difference a year makes. "Before American Idol, I was your typical college student [majoring in journalism at Northeastern State University]," says the 23-year-old winner of AI's fourth season. "I was in a sorority. I'd never been to New York. When I sang, it was before about 15 people. Now it's 15,000. Everything is completely different." Whoosh! That's the sound of Underwood's career careening down the fast lane. Her first CD, Some Hearts, has sold more than 3 million copies, launched two No. 1 country singles (her latest, "Before He Cheats," is climbing the chart) and garnered her four CMA nominations. Still, moving at such a breakneck pace has been an adjustment. "I was always close to my parents. So being away from them has been pretty hard," says Underwood, who comforts herself by keeping a Bible next to her bed. And her relentless touring schedule has left her little time for settling into her new Nashville home—much less dating. "Guys have always been terrified of me, and now it's even worse," she says. But she has had some fantastic opportunities too: meeting her teen idol Randy Travis ("I loved him! I still love him!") and getting a backstage education in performing from Kenny Chesney
, with whom she toured this summer. She has also gotten a very fast lesson in fashion. "Before, it was basically T-shirt and jeans," says the singer. "I actually got the nickname Pajama Girl from a couple of my professors because I would roll out of bed, brush my teeth and go to class. Now I realize it's important to look nice and create an image. You don't want to be on the 'Worst Look of the Week' page in whatever magazine. You want people to see you and think, 'Wow! She looks awesome. Wow! She's a star.'"
IDOLS GONE COUNTRY!
isn't the only Idol singer with country music in her blood. Look who else is trying their luck in Nashville:
The genial ex-Marine, who finished fourth in 2003 and will release his second album, All About Y'All, in February, sums up his post-Idol life in one word: "Touring." Not that he's complaining. "The best part," says Gracin, who turns 26 Oct. 18, "is I interact with the audience constantly. Sometimes it's crazy. I was at a casino show in Washington [State] last year and this girl who was about 5'3" almost tackled me. And I'm a big guy," says the six-footer. The down side? "Not being able to see my family as much," says Gracin, whose wife, Ann Marie, keeps house outside Nashville with their daughter Briana, 4, and son Landon, 1, and is expecting a baby in November. Gracin did make time for a guest shot on The Young and the Restless in June, but the most fun, he says, has been hanging out with Rascal Flatts, who volunteered to be his mentors after seeing him perform on Idol. "They're country boys like me," says the Westland, Mich., native. Their best advice? "Forget everything and everybody else. Just pay attention to the fans."
Idol's ditzy sixth-place finisher this year doesn't mind being known for her weird way with words. "I'm from the South, and a lot of people pronounce the l in 'salmon,'" she insists. In fact, she grew up in Albemarle, N.C., the inspiration for Small Town Girl, her debut album (due Oct. 31). Its songs, some of which Pickler, 20, cowrote, "showcase who I am and all the things I've had to overcome," she says. That includes seeing her dad, Clyde "Bo" Pickler Jr., serve more than three years in prison for a 2003 stabbing. This summer her biggest challenge was the Idol tour and performing in 60 shows in 90 days. "I'm running on adrenaline and Red Bull," she says. "But it's a lot of fun. We've all become so close." So how close is she to fellow Idol aspirant Constantine Maroulis? "Everybody always asks me that," says Pickler. "We never dated and never will." For the record, she adds, "I have a boyfriend now who's from my hometown. He's a real good down-to-earth country boy who's very supportive of my career."