CHECOTAH — Since rocketing to superstardom in 2005, Carrie Underwood has typically spent every other autumn getting dolled up for photo shoots, making TV appearances and handling all the hoopla involved with releasing a new album.
Last October, though, the five-time Grammy winner was visiting her native state rather than New York or Los Angeles. She helped build a treehouse-themed playground, which she funded through her charitable foundation, at Marshall Elementary School in her hometown of Checotah. She spent time with relatives, friends and teachers who schooled her there at Marshall.
The 2005 “American Idol” winner even made a trip back to her collegiate alma mater, Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, where she participated in the homecoming festivities and received a distinguished alumnus honor.
“I've been able this summer to work a lot on my next album. I'm in and out of the recording studio, kind of taking things a little bit slower, which has been really nice because I've been able to do stuff like this,” she told The Oklahoman at the time.
“I feel really blessed and lucky to grow up here.”
After releasing her first three multiplatinum-selling albums — 2005's “Some Hearts,” 2007's “Carnival Ride” and 2009's “Play On” — every two years like clockwork, the country music standout took an extra six months to craft her fourth record, “Blown Away.”
And the new album, which swept into stores Tuesday, boasts a markedly more mature and eclectic sound than any of Underwood's previous efforts.
The album's title track vividly tells the tale of an abused girl who leaves her drunken father to the churning winds of fate during an Oklahoma tornado. The relatable tearjerker “Forever Changed” chronicles a woman's courtship, marriage and birth, followed by the loss of her memory, while her daughter struggles to cope. A chilling story about the wife and mistress of a supposedly good man meeting face-to-face for the first time at his funeral, “Two Black Cadillacs” practically begs to be made into a music video or maybe even a movie.
“I feel like we took things in a lot of different directions, things that are new for me, that darker, heavier tone, a little more dramatic. And we also do some songs that are really, really organic and sweet,” Underwood, 29, said during a recent live Q&A with Billboard.com.
While she took her time recording “Blown Away,” the 2005 “American Idol” winner has been anything but, well, idle in the past year. She made her first foray into movies with last year's fact-based inspirational drama “Soul Surfer,” co-hosted the Country Music Association Awards with Brad Paisley for the fourth straight year and set up housekeeping in Nashville with her hockey-player husband Mike Fisher.
She also performed with an array of duet partners, so it's little wonder that Underwood's new music sounds more diverse than ever.
She and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler rocked a special Super Bowl edition of “CMT Crossroads”; their medley “Just a Dream/Dream On” just received one of Underwood's five CMT Music Award nominations. She reteamed with country music stalwart Randy Travis to record a new version of his “Is It Still Over?” for his 25th anniversary album. And she and legendary crooner Tony Bennett revisited the standard “It Had to Be You” for his Grammy-winning “Duets II” record.
Plus, she and Paisley sang together on the ballad “Remind Me,” for his 2011 album “This Is Country Music.” It became a No. 1 hit last summer.
Paisley returned the favor for “Blown Away,” bringing his trademark scorching electric guitar licks to the raucous romp “Cupid's Got a Shotgun,” which Underwood penned with “Before He Cheats” writers Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins.
“Brad's great. Brad is the big brother I never had. He messes with me and picks on me like a little sister, so we work well together,” she said last fall.
While Underwood is back to jetting from the Big Apple to L.A. and even to London doing all the TV appearances, photo shoots and promotional concerts for her new album, her native Oklahoma clearly is still on her heart and mind: “Blown Away” also features the heartfelt tribute “Thank God for Hometowns.”