Homecoming Queen

updated 11/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Carrie Underwood has never been comfortable in a crowd. So when a steady stream of well-wishers stopped by the American Idol winner's booth at the Katy Café in her hometown of Checotah, Okla., "it kind of weirded me out," she says. On her recent two-day trip back home, "people I've known my whole life asked for my autograph. I'm like, that's silly! Why do you want my name on a piece of paper?" Not that she's anything but gracious and polite to the residents of Checotah (pop. 3,481). They "are very proud," she says, "to see someone from here succeed in a big way."

Big is right: In June the fourth Idol champ made her debut at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart with the song she performed on the Idol finale, "Inside Your Heaven." And on Nov. 15 her first album, Some Hearts, hits store shelves. "I want to go buy it!" says the 22-year-old singer, still amazed at how far she has come.

Growing up on a farm on the outskirts of the one stoplight town, where the local beauty shop is housed inside the hardware store, "I always felt like I wanted to move on, go someplace big," says Underwood. Crossing the country on the American Idol tour this summer and spending four months in Nashville (where she lives when she's not on the road) recording the album "made me realize how much I missed it. I miss the laid-backness of it. You pretty much know everybody." She does want to set some things straight about her upbringing. "Everybody thinks, 'Oh, they have crops and they milk the cows and they have pigs,' " she says. "No, there are no crops, just cows. They're envisioning me waking up at the crack of dawn, going outside to do I don't know what."

Misconceptions and all, Underwood—who says she's single but "never not looking"—credits her Idol victory to her Checotah roots. "I think it came down to all the people who live in towns like mine," she says, "or who think it might be nice to."

Mike Lipton. Darla Atlas in Checotah

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