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.