NASHVILLE – As a live performer, Carrie Underwood has nothing to prove.
However, as she told The Tennessean ahead of her Saturday night headlining set at CMA Fest, she feels a duty to uphold the “hustling” legacies of top-tier country icons like Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton. Thus, she slung an electric guitar over her left shoulder, wore enough bejeweled red and black stagewear to be seen in Nissan Stadium’s nosebleed seats, and rocked out with a defiant version of her 2016 single “Church Bells.”
Of late, Underwood has become a touring juggernaut: Las Vegas to Stagecoach Festival to Nashville’s Bell Tower to perform her new album, “Denim & Rhinestones.”
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However, she showed neither exhaustion nor disengagement from her material. On the contrary, the excitement of the job – being radio-ready country music’s most instantaneously recognizable female name – felt like her call to arms to slay a live crowd already blown away by Luke Combs’ phenomenal set just 90 minutes before.
From “Denim & Rhinestones,” she performed the banjo-aided power-pop lead single “Ghost Story.” The song has just enough country blended with pop to highlight her desire to make music that is more broadly genre non-specific. However, she keeps country music’s traditions at the core.
Her 2005-era track “Wasted” featured Underwood’s work as an inspirational Christian rocker blasting to the forefront. Yes, the more traditional “My Savior” reflects where her current interests lie in that realm, but her fiddle-backed torch-song exhortations left Nissan Stadium enraptured.
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Following that performance with “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” another religious pop number from the same era of her career, and a stentorian take on the gospel hymn “How Great Thou Art” cemented her excellence in country-adjacent territory.
The jazzy, ’80s R&B radio synth-pop that underpins her latest album’s title track opens a new lane for her career that should prove creatively fruitful. It received the least overwhelming response of the evening, but aligns well with sonic and cultural shifts in the genre.
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Underwood’s soul-pop skills were highlighted via her 2007 single “Last Night,” a track where she sings, “Last night, I did things I’m not proud of and I got a little crazy / Last night, I met a guy on the dance floor and I let him call me ‘baby.’ ”
Masterfully, it set up the set’s expected closer, her smash hit debut single, 2005’s “Before He Cheats.” If there’s a 21st century American Songbook, Underwood promising to commit felonies against a cheating lover is likely on the first page.
Hearing an entire venue sing the song cemented the song’s – and her – undeniable excellence.
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