Photo: Jeremy Cowart
Carrie Underwood On Creating Her First Gospel Album, 'My Savior,' Working With CeCe Winans, & Making "Legacy Music"
In 2005, fresh off her "American Idol" win, Carrie Underwood, then a rising singer from Oklahoma, scored her first country radio hit, "Jesus, Take The Wheel." Two years later, the faith-based ballad elevated her to another level in her career: a GRAMMY award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance at the 2007 GRAMMY Awards show. (That year she also took home the coveted Best New Artist award.)
Now a seven-time GRAMMY winner, she's notched hits like "Before He Cheats" and "Blown Away," but has never shied away from her spirituality. "Something in the Water," "See You Again," "Temporary Home," and her soul-piercing performance of "How Great Thou Art" alongside Vince Gill during an Academy of Country Music television special in 2015 showed her devotion proudly.
Those spiritual leanings come full-circle on her first gospel album, My Savior, released on March 26. Much like last year's holiday album My Gift, Underwood's new project finds her drawing from childhood memories; She sings of attending a rural Baptist church in Oklahoma—listening to Sunday sermons and joining the congregation in singing classics such as "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art" from an old hymnal.
"It's so great for me because I feel like in recording them, even now I can still feel myself sitting in the church pews next to my parents, hearing my mom sing harmonies and hearing other voices singing in the congregation," Underwood tells GRAMMY.com. "I feel like that just still rings in my ear and it's wonderful, but more importantly, it provides a feeling of comfort and inspiration that hopefully other people can feel as well when they listen to these songs."
Like so many impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, Underwood turned to her faith—and faith-based music—as a source of comfort. She has stayed in Nashville with her husband, Mike Fisher, and their two sons and kept in touch with family members back in Oklahoma from afar. The project's production process made her feel closer to the family she can’t be with at the moment.
"Making this album felt like home, and I haven't been home since Christmas of 2019," Underwood says. "I haven't seen my dad in so long, so it was nice in the middle of the unsureness and chaos of 2020, first to get to make the Christmas album and then to follow it up with more songs that just felt like home."
Carrie Underwood recently spoke with GRAMMY.com about her new album, My Savior, her spiritual journey, learning from gospel legend CeCe Winans, and crafting what she calls "legacy music."
Making this album had to feel like a walk down memory lane for you. What memories do these songs bring to mind?
I've been singing these songs my whole life. Even now I can still feel myself sitting in the church pews next to my parents, hearing my mom sing harmonies and hearing voices from people in the congregation. I feel like that still rings in my ear and it’s wonderful.
Did anyone in your family have suggestions for songs to include on the album?
Everybody always chimes in. Some of them were already on the list. My husband would chime in every once in a while with something that maybe was an older faith-based song, but not necessarily a hymn. He didn't necessarily grow up listening to a lot of the hymns that I did, but he wanted me to do "Give Me Jesus," so maybe someday I can cover that one down the road.
How did you narrow down the song choices?
We had the biggest running list. [There were] dozens [of songs]. But you have your pillars—I knew I wanted "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," "How Great Thou Art," "Softly and Tenderly," [and] "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus." We wanted to create diversity in the sound because so many of them were written kind of around the same time period with the same instrumentation. The challenge was making them sound fresh, but still keeping that traditional thing about them that I love.
And so many of them have a lot of verses, but no chorus. It's not a traditional format that we are used to, so for "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" in particular, that's why we put the "Ohs" in there, to become the little break between verses.
Bear Rinehart from NEEDTOBREATHE sings with you on "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" and the song has this great soulful sound. How did he become part of this album?
When we started playing around with tempo on this song, we could just hear his voice on it. It took me forever to ask him, but it was one of those things where he actually showed up one Sunday at my church and sat right in front of me. I was like, "Oh my gosh, we've been talking about giving him a call." We were wrapping up the album and it was reaching that point where I needed to ask him. Of course, I chickened out because who wants to start talking work at church?
Then we ended up in a small group having brunch afterward, and he asked me about what I was working on. I was like, “Well, as a matter of fact, you're probably going to get a call within the next couple of days about maybe coming and singing on something.” It does sound so cool, and I loved the way it turned out because [it] was exactly what we were hearing the whole time.
CeCe Winans joins you on "Great Is Thy Faithfulness."
I feel like God was really watching out for this project in so many ways. Her people had called us about something completely separate, and we thought, "This is our open door." She said yes, and within days she was in the studio with me.
She came in, and I felt like we just needed to sit back and let her work her magic because it truly was inspirational. And besides her extremely God-given, powerful, inspiring voice, her presence was just so wonderful to be around. I feel like when I work with legends, I'm a sponge. I want to see what you do and how you do it. So it was equal parts getting to work with her and sing with her, but also learning from her.
You have always included faith-based songs throughout your career, from "Jesus, Take The Wheel" to "Something in the Water." With everything going on in the world, were you nervous at all to put out a specifically faith-based project?
I feel like the answer to all of our problems is Jesus, and like you said, it's not a secret where I stand. And this has been good for my soul. I feel like hopefully when people listen to it, it'll inspire. It'll bring some peace, and hopefully some good, positive feelings.
Do you recall when you first felt like you had a personal connection with God?
Well, I was always in church. There was always an altar call song. For our church, it was "Just As I Am," and that's on the album. I might've been 10 years old, something like that. When you grow up around it, it means you have to make that decision for yourself. I remember making that trip down the aisle, knowing that was what I wanted to do.
When do you feel most connected spiritually?
I've been singing my whole life, even before I knew that this [was] going to be what I do. I'm a bird. I sing. It's what I do. When I sing songs like this, I definitely feel connected. With the Christmas album, too. I loved getting to be in the studio and sing in more intimate settings, because when there [are] people in front of you, you're worried about, "What do they see? What do they hear? Are they happy? Do they like it?" You want to put on a good show. But in the studio there's nobody else there, it's just me and God in the room, and I get to just sing to Jesus.
Speaking of performing, you recently announced you will celebrate the album's release with a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Easter Sunday, April 4, and that it will livestream from your official Facebook page.
Well, we're missing performing. Under normal circumstances, you make an album and then you get to tour it in front of an audience. Obviously, right now, we're not quite there yet, but we still want a project this special to have that moment. We decided to go to our country music Mother Church, the Ryman, because it is spiritual. You walk in there and you feel it. I think it's going to be an inspiring morning.
There have been a lot of collaborations between country artists and CCM/gospel artists recently—Chris Tomlin and Florida Georgia Line, and Dolly Parton's work with Zach Williams and for King & Country, for example. Are there other CCM artists you would want to work with in the future?
I would love definitely for people who are strong in their faith to sing about it. I feel like the more of us that make it a norm and do our thing—I've already had other people in the music industry who are friends in mine say, "I've always wanted to do this, but would wonder what people would think about it." There are a few of us, like Hillary Scott and Dolly, we're just making music and trying to stay true to ourselves. When that's part of you, I feel like it's easy, and maybe more artists will feel like it's a safe space to be able to do that.
You never know, as far as me working with other Christian music artists. I would never count any of that out, but everything just has to feel right and be right in the moment.
You have two young sons, Isaiah and Jacob. So many congregations lean toward praise and worship music, or modern-day hymns. This album feels like one way to pass down these traditional hymns you grew up with to a new generation of listeners.
I did grow up with these songs and like you said, so many churches do praise and worship. Every once in a while at our church, they'll sneak in a chorus or a bit of a hymn, which is always nice for me because I love them. But I do feel like so many younger people didn't necessarily grow up with these songs. Maybe we are, in a way, introducing some of these to a new generation. I sing them around the house, and I love that my boys will have my voice on these songs, as they get older.
Legacy music is how I like to think of it. I love all the songs and all the albums that I have ever made and I have a special connection with each one. But I feel like this is the real stuff, the heart stuff, the soul stuff.