Underwood, the youngest of schoolteacher Carole and paper-mill operator Stephen's three daughters, grows up in Checotah, Okla., population 3,500. She started singing in church, school plays and local talent shows. "People look at me like I must be a country bumpkin," Underwood tells Parade in 2006. "I'll do interviews, and everybody's like, 'Oh, ha-ha, do you milk cows? Did you have chickens?' I've never milked a cow in my entire life."
While an undergrad at Oklahoma's Northeastern State University, Underwood auditions for the fourth season of American Idol in St. Louis, Mo. She impresses the judges (Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson) with her rendition of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," earning a spot to compete in Hollywood. Mr. Nasty himself, Cowell, later predicts that the 21-year-old will win the contest and sell more records than anyone in Idol history.
Underwood wins the fourth season of American Idol, beating Alabama rocker Bo Bice. Approximately 30 million viewers tune in and more than 500 million votes are cast throughout the season with Underwood winning by a slight margin. "I think it came down to all the people who live in towns like mine or who think it might be nice to," Underwood tells PEOPLE.
Underwood releases her first single, the original song written for Idol, "Inside Your Heaven." During its first week, the single sells 170,000 copies and debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While working on her album, she promises to stay true to country music: "That's where my heart is. I feel like that's the music that's the most pure," she tells the AP.
Underwood debuts her inspirational single "Jesus, Take the Wheel," which hits No. 1 on the Billboard country charts and becomes the first country debut single to reach the Top 40. The music video wins two Country Music Television (CMT) awards for Breakthrough Video of the Year and Female Video of the Year in April 2006. "This is my very first acceptance speech, so I made a list," she says onstage, thanking everyone from Idol to God.
Underwood releases her debut album Some Hearts, which is carried by the hit "Jesus, Take the Wheel." The album sells more than 300,000 copies in its first week and eventually sells more than 5 million copies. Underwood becomes the highest-debuting country artist in history, and Some Hearts is the best-selling debut CD of any Idol contestant, even Kelly Clarkson. The album wins five Billboard Music Awards in 2006, including Album of Year.
Underwood joins country superstar Kenny Chesney for the first time as a solo artist. Underwood stays on the road until October, and expresses her love for country music to Parade. "To me, it was the least tainted. It wasn't about sex or how well you could dance…it's the most respectable kind of music. It's honest. The people are genuinely talented. I don't know one country artist who has ever been accused of lip-synching."
Underwood graduates magna cum laude from Northeastern State University in Oklahoma with a Bachelors degree in mass communications. American Idol even helped her check off one course requirement: "I've obviously done enough with television. There was my internship right there!" Weeks later, she takes home four Academy of Country Music Awards, including Top New Female Vocalist and Single of the Year for "Jesus, Take the Wheel."
At the Country Music Association Awards, Underwood wins two awards: the Horizon Award and Female Vocalist of the Year, beating Faith Hill. But when Underwood is announced the winner, a backstage camera catches Hill screaming "What?" "The idea that I would act disrespectful towards a fellow musician is unimaginable to me," Hill says in a statement. "Carrie is a talented and deserving [winner]."
Underwood takes home three Grammys at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance for "Jesus, Take the Wheel." "I think tonight kind of proved that American Idol can transcend the talent show stereotype it has," she tells the Los Angeles Times. "It's just great talent on the show that couldn't get discovered doing what they were doing. It certainly worked for me."
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