Carrie Underwood aside, country radio has embraced former “American Idol” contestants only reluctantly, as if they were averse to sharing the credit for launching an act. A few have managed to last, though: Underwood’s an arena headliner and a radio mainstay for 15 years now, and Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, who finished 1-2 on “Idol” in 2011, also seem to have won over programmers.
Gabby Barrett can go on that list, too. Barrett, who finished third on the 2018 edition of “Idol” as an 18-year-old, recently made that ascent with “I Hope,” making her the first solo female singer since Carly Pearce in 2017 to reach No. 1 on the country airplay charts with a debut single.
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That acceptance may be because Barrett follows so closely in Underwood’s footsteps, the older singer might want to steer clear of “All About Eve” for a while. Barrett’s breakout single essentially rewrites Underwood’s signature hit “Before He Cheats.” It’s a revenge song with such specificity — “I hope you hear a song that makes you sing along and gets you thinking ’bout her / Then the last several miles turns into a blur” — you can tell the wronged character has invested serious time in her fantasy, even if she’s not willing to break out the Louisville Slugger to start busting headlights, a la Underwood. The lyrical twist in the chorus comes as little surprise, given the barely disguised aggression in Barrett’s voice as she lays out her hopes for her former lover. There’s little subtlety to the song, unlike Underwood’s hit, where there was some question whether the character was justifiably enraged or just a jealous psycho; Barrett simply sounds angry. (In the pop-targeted duet version that closes the album, Charlie Puth dials back the intensity and comes across as wounded and vulnerable.)
“I Hope” isn’t the only track on “Goldmine” that brings Underwood to mind, either. When Barrett sings “Even if it was my highway, thank God I let you steer,” in “You’re the Only Reason,” she might as well go ahead and say, “Jesus, take the wheel.”
Such obvious reference points would present a more serious problem if Barrett didn’t have the chops, but she’s the finest belter country music has seen since Underwood, and a powerhouse vocalist whose fondness for big hooks and big emotions served her well on “Idol” and continues to do so on “Goldmine.” She does love a superlative: “You say he hung the moon, I say he hung the galaxy,” she sings in “The Good Ones,” the follow-up single to “I Hope.” She doesn’t just have a new love, she has one that belongs in the “Hall of Fame,” a relationship that stands alongside Johnny and June Carter Cash or Rose and Jack from “Titanic.”
Primary producers and collaborators Ross Copperman and Zach Kale emphasize Barrett’s power at every turn, especially on rock-oriented tracks like “Jesus and My Mama” and “Goldmine,” the only song Barrett didn’t have a hand in writing. As a singer, though, Barrett is mature enough not to go full-tilt full-time: Her whistle-tone notes in “Hall of Fame” — still a rarity in country 30 years after Mariah Carey’s arrival — are employed as a color, not a gimmick.
While Barrett arrived on country radio like an angel of vengeance with “I Hope,” most of “Goldmine” finds her resting in the arms of God, family and country. She’s so comfortable in the language of faith that a line as intimate and revealing as “He’s a Bible by the bed” in “The Good Ones” — a song inspired by husband and fellow “Idol” alum Cade Foehner, who plays guitar on several tracks — is delivered almost as a casual aside.
The object of “You’re the Only Reason” is more nebulous: With lyrics like “You’re my solid rock, my gospel choir / My faith, my walk-me-through-the-fire,” the song could apply to a parent, a partner or a higher spiritual power. It’s a country-gospel variant on Christian music’s “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre.
Songs like “You’re the Only Reason” and “Got Me” (the latter featuring worship duo Shane & Shane and incorporating elements of the spiritual “Give Me Jesus”) suggest Warner Music is positioning Barrett to cross into the Christian market. That’s not surprising, considering that Barrett started singing in gospel choirs as a preteen. “The best thing about life is living it for His name, and I ain’t gonna waste one bit of a minute worrying what people think,” Barrett declares in “Jesus and My Mama,” a guitar-heavy Southern rocker that reaches its musical and emotional climax by quoting from “Jesus Loves Me.”
The jury’s still out on whether Barrett will have the longevity of the best “Idol” alumnae to hit Nashville, but all the elements are in place — vocal ability, songwriting, an appealing personality and a top-flight team — and they’re all present on “Goldmine.” Barrett’s debut may not be the mother lode, but the vein appears to run rich and deep.
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