Mainstream country music needs Carrie Underwood now more than ever. Along with Miranda Lambert, Underwood is the biggest woman in the genre, and the genre isn’t doing great by women at the moment. They are vastly underrepresented in airplay at country radio, which is a driving force in sales, discovery, and fandom for country music. So an album drop by Underwood a litmus test.
Country radio did not rally around Lambert’s CMA and ACM Album of the Year LP, The Weight of These Wings, with programmers claiming they couldn’t find a single. Lambert’s considerable stature didn’t grant her any wiggle room, because she’s also a woman. Underwood takes a different approach with her sixth album, Cry Pretty, an album full of radio-ready songs that are home runs for all the things modern country audiences are thought to love. The question is: Will she get any traction? Can the face of the NFL theme song get radio airplay in a genre that seems to be afraid of women?
Underwood is also making an feminist statement with Cry Pretty; she co-wrote nine of the album’s 13 tracks and, in a first, serves as co-producer with David Garcia (Bebe Rexha, Kip Moore). Garcia’s crossover chops help guide Underwood to some strong pop and even hip hop sounds on tracks that really work (“Ghosts on the Stereo” and “End Up with You”) and some that fall flat (“Backsliding,” which under serves her impressive voice). Underwood had a traumatic year, overcoming a life-changing facial injury, but she steers clear of the topic on Cry Pretty in favor of exploring some tried and true topics that are country favorites and getting political for the first time in her career.
We get a couple of boozy country tropes with “Drinking Alone,” a spicy track where drinking serves as slang for hooking up with a stranger in a bar, and “Spinning Bottles,” a sad track about the abuse that comes with alcoholism. “Southbound” celebrates that authentic small-town lifestyle, invoking pontoons and “red-neck margaritas,” so those in the know can know that Underwood is one of them.
Underwood’s most overt political statement comes on “The Bullet,” a tear-jerker that details the aftermath of gun violence. She avoids taking a stance on the Second Amendment in the lyrics, but provides a dim view of reckless treatment of human life, singing, “You can blame it on hate or blame it on guns, but mamas ain't supposed to bury their sons / Left a hole in her heart and it still ain't done / The bullet keeps on goin'.” She continues to very cautiously take on politics with “Love Wins,” which also starts with a mention of a stray bullet, this time giving the impression she’s addressing Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights without actually mentioning either. Underwood walks a fine line of talking to red and blue states but refuses to take a side, presumably for fear of alienating anyone.
The American Idol winner seemingly plays it safe musically because she feels she’s taking her chances with milquetoast political statements instead. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Underwood doesn’t seemingly evolve much with Cry Pretty, but the proof is there, between the lines: She’s producing herself, she’s writing it herself, and she’s taking control of her own narrative, sexist radio programmers be damned.