They are among Nashville’s finest ambassadors. She is a six-time Grammy winner whose powerhouse voice has earned 18 #1 singles and sales of 15 million CDs. He is a writer/singer/guitar slinger with three Grammys, 18 #1’s (including 10 in a row from 2005-2009) and sales of more than 15 million. Separately, they carry some of today’s best country music to untold millions in concert and through the media, and together they have hosted Nashville’s big night, the CMA Awards, six times–most recently on November 6 from Bridgestone Arena.
Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley grew up far from Nashville–she is from Checotah, Okla., and he is from Glen Dale, W.Va.–but both are as happy with their adopted city as they are comfortable with their hosting duties. Of course, they should feel comfortable–he has 14 CMAs in all, including Entertainer of the Year, three Male Vocalist awards and an Album of the Year nod. She has five wins amid 15 nominations, including three Female Vocalist awards, with three more nominations this year. But it’s humor (his dry and often over-the-top, hers warm and understated), along with superstar-next-door personas and sheer likability that have made them the perfect New Millennium hosts for the genre’s most-viewed showcase. “We caught our stride about the second year,” says Brad. “We had really good chemistry and learned to be adventurous in the right way, and every year since we’ve gotten more comfortable.” Carrie is quick to add, though, that not everything is quite as smooth as it might appear.
“Last year was really nerve-wracking,” she says. “There were a lot of last-minute changes and we really had to trust ourselves and the people working on the show to pull it off, and we did. After that, we feel like we can tackle anything.” It seems perfectly fitting that these two should be the CMA’s torchbearers; both have become quintessential Nashvillians, as proud of and immersed in their city as any native could ask. They somehow embody Nashville, its talent, its openness, its charisma and charm. Both also personify its excitement and growth, as they set new challenges for themselves and continue to expand country’s audience. Both have major projects in the works. Carrie is, of course, the new voice of Sunday Night Football, and she’ll be singing the lead in a must-see live three-hour production of The Sound of Music, airing on NBC on December 5. Brad, meanwhile, is taking the powerful message of his new single, “I Can’t Change The World,” to the big screen, with production already underway.
Behind all the accomplishments, part of the appeal Carrie and Brad have for fans is the fact that there’s a “girl-next-door” behind the gorgeous gowns and a “down-home guy” behind the world-class guitar solos. There’s enough of both to make it seem as though it might be possible to run into them around Nashville—which, in fact, just may be the case. “There are places in town that get used to seeing Nashville stars,” says Brad. “Swett’s, Prince’s Chicken, places like that. They’re like, ‘Hey, he’s here today. Josh Turner was just in, too. Good to see you. What do you want?’ They’re happy to see all of us. It can be a lot harder in other cities.” “We live just south of Nashville,” says Carrie, “and it’s a great area to be in because downtown Nashville is so close. Some of my new favorite restaurants are Rolf and Daughters in Germantown, a home-cooked, Italian kind of place that’s really nice inside, and City House. And I really like Watermark and Sambucca in the Gulch, which is a great area to go hang out in. And if it’s around the Bridgestone Arena, I’ve been there, obviously, because Mike [her husband, Mike Fisher, of the Nashville Predators] does spend a lot of time there—especially the Palm, because it’s right across the street.” Brad’s tastes run from down-home to upscale.
“I like Barbara’s Home Cookin’ in Franklin,” he says. “It’s a meat-and-three, and a hangout. And there’s your standbys like The Pie Wagon and Sylvan Park Restaurant. There’s Kayne Prime Steakhouse, and we’ve been to The Catbird Seat, and it was a ridiculous, amazing experience. Our town is becoming this foodies’ destination, and these places, even the boutiques like that, treat celebrities very normally.” Both admit there are limits to the amount of nightlife they can comfortably partake in. “We really don’t get out and about that often,” says Carrie, “simply because if I do have a nice quiet evening to spend, I kind of want to spend it at home. I do grocery shop a lot and cook a lot at home, and now and then we’ll order in.” That’s something that has provided the occasional delivery person with a great story. “One time before I was married,” she says, “I literally came home on Thanksgiving Day. I had a roommate at the time and we ordered pizza because we didn’t have any food. The guy showed up and I think he was surprised. He was probably dreading going to work on Thanksgiving Day, so I made sure I gave him a big Thanksgiving tip. And he was thankful!” Brad contends that the ABC series that regularly features his wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley–Nashville–has “ruined” some places by prompting flocks of tourists to make the pilgrimage. “There’s no hanging out on Broadway anymore,” he says, “and the Bluebird you can forget. There were days when I could go see a writer I knew and get up and sing, and now you can’t get in because of that show. But I wouldn’t change anything about that for those businesses. “And I’ve sort of ruined myself for Cracker Barrel now,” he adds with a laugh. Cracker Barrel is presenting Brad’s “Beat This Summer” tour and has put out an exclusive Special Edition of his Wheelhouse album. “I go in there now and there’s a cardboard cutout of me as you walk in the door and my photo is on the menu. Even if you don’t know who I am, you’ve got cue cards in front of you.”
“There’s the occasional out-to-dinner autograph or something like that,” adds Carrie, “but I really do feel like normal Carrie a lot of the time. For the most part, it’s really a cool city to be normal in. Sometimes people feel surprised to see me at the grocery store or picking something up, but I say, ‘I’ve gotta eat too!’ And I’ve run into Brad at the Whole Foods store. But overall, people can still take their kids to school and go buy groceries and people normally treat them pretty well.” “Ordinary Carrie” is also who she is at Predators’ games. “I’m just a hockey wife in the stands,” she says, “and it’s great to be part of that crowd. They’re really incredible. Everybody just wants to have fun and everybody wants us to win. It’s like the Titans games. Nashvillians just love a good show, no matter what. People just want to come and have a good time, eat some nachos, drink some beer and yell.” Through it all, both are happy to be repping a city that was once the same far-off dream it is for most young fans aspiring to their own country careers. “Growing up,” says Brad, “this was my Mecca, this place where everybody I idolized as an entertainer lived and worked. I watched The Nashville Network religiously. Places like the Opry and the Cannery were larger than life. It seemed if I could just be on any of them at some point, even as a guitar player in somebody’s band, I would have felt like my life had reached its purpose.
“My first real view of it was through Fan Fair as a fan. Carrie did the same thing. We’ve talked about that, and it’s such an interesting perspective to have. The city just seemed alive and young and vibrant and thriving and all that. It still does. It continues to feel like one of those places in America that has very little darkness to it. It’s a very light sort of happy, optimistic place. There’s a reason so many rock and rollers and pop stars move here. When you discover Nashville, it’s hard to pass up.” Brad came as a college transfer, attending Belmont University in his junior and senior years. There he met Frank Rogers, now his producer, Kelley Lovelace, now a frequent songwriting collaborator, and others who have meant a great deal to his career. He already had years of performing on WWVA’s Jamboree USA and opening for the likes of George Jones, Ricky Skaggs and Roy Clark behind him. Carrie had sung as a child and nearly landed a Nashville recording contract at 14, but she “pretty much gave up on the dream of singing” after high school, attending Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University and preparing for “my future in the real world.” Then along came an audition for the fourth season of American Idol and an impressive win that led to a record deal and the incredible success that has followed.
Such stardom doesn’t preclude the need to play tour guide to out-of-town visitors now and then. “If there are good people playing the Opry, which there usually are,” says Carrie, “we’ll go out there. It’s a great place to take visitors, especially if they haven’t been there. If they’re going out exploring without us, I always send them up and down Broadway.” As attuned as both Mike and Carrie are to fitness, it’s not surprising that they can be spotted staying in shape. “Sometimes I work out at home,” says Carrie, “but there are times I go to one of the great trainers in town for a good workout. And Mike will run sometimes in Percy Warner Park.” She approaches fitness like she does everything else—all-out. “When I’m in work mode I work really hard,” she says, “but I am one of those people who can turn it all off and relax. I know several people in the music industry who are always thinking and trying out and figuring out new things. When it’s time to write, I write. When it’s time to record, I record. When it’s time to think about an upcoming tour, I’m all in, but I’ll get a week where I don’t have to do anything and I don’t.” There has been precious little of that down time this summer or fall as Carrie has prepared for her role as Maria—a role made famous by Mary Martin on Broadway and by Julie Andrews in the iconic film. This live TV performance is one Carrie approaches with a great deal of respect and at least some trepidation. In between tour dates, promotion for “See You Again,” the final #1 single from her fourth album, Blown Away, interviews and much more, she has poured herself into rehearsing and researching—she and Mike took a trip to Austria to visit the locales where the real story played out–a role involving spoken dialogue and dance as well as singing. “It’s something new for me,” she says. “I’ve never really done a musical before, but it just seemed like such a cool project. Also, it’s singing live, which is what I do. In some ways it’s something completely new, which terrifies me, but in some ways it’s getting to do what I love–a way to branch out a little bit and have one more really awesome thing on my resume.” Brad, whose restless creative imagination deals in humor, pathos, romance and social commentary, finds himself preparing a film version of “I Can’t Change The World,” the third single from his Wheelhouse album. “It’s like a love song for these times we’re living in,” he says. “We are so interconnected, so absolutely threaded together now. You’re able to text someone who’s on vacation in Europe or tweet somebody you don’t know in the middle of the Philippines. Then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, where you know immediately about a tsunami in Indonesia or a train wreck in Italy. Not long ago, it was just in the newspaper in black and white. Now, we internalize it all and don’t know how to deal with it.” The songwriter in him saw the phenomenon through the eyes of real people.
“Falling in love,” he says, “you should be able to tune out, to be oblivious to those things, but it’s hard to do because the news is so good at breaking alerts and making mountains out of molehills—you know, ‘Bear and Shark Attacks: Are they Co-Related? And Should you Worry?’” But there is more to the song—and the film—than cataloguing the problem. “They are an attempt at studying people as they go about life, figuring out who they are in this age. It’s back to basics, realizing it’s a very simple thing to make a difference. You pick out one person and say, ‘Your life has meaning. It has worth. I’d like to make it better.’ If you make the world a better place for one person, it doesn’t have to be for millions.” Their roles as ambassadors in the project they’ve been sharing now for six years–the CMAs–isn’t lost on either of them. “Loving the city like we do,” says Brad, “to feel like we represent it is something we don’t take lightly. The show is really rooted in knowing what it means and what it stands for, to further country music’s appeal and preserve it, and pay homage to it. I have such a sense of responsibility to that.” “I definitely hope I represent the city well,” adds Carrie. “I mean, I never thought I would get to do what I do. It’s really cool that a few of us get to live outside our little bubbles and travel all over the place and hopefully represent Nashville and the country music scene well.” It’s something both of their fans agree they are doing wonderfully. And no one doubts that, after six years of carrying the torch with style, grace and humor, the role is theirs as long as they’d like it. — This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Regions Bank.