The award-winning country singer reveals how her small-town upbringing shaped her faith, career and family life.
Posted in , Nov 20, 2020
It’s always been one of my favorite carols—“Little Drummer Boy.” You know the story. He wants to bring a gift to baby Jesus, but he’s poor. He doesn’t have shiny, pretty, special things as the wise men do, with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. What can he give the newborn king? He turns to the one thing he knows he can do, the thing he does best. Play his drum. That’s the gift he gives to Jesus. The gift of music.
I’ve had that gift as far back as I can remember, bursting into song at the drop of a hat, something that made me happy and others too. Like lots of kids. My kids, for instance. Our older son, Isaiah, was only a toddler when I’d sing to him, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” in his car seat and he’d sing right back, “Yes, Jesus loves me.” Almost before he could talk, he was singing.
The first time I ever sang a solo in front of people was at church. I must have been six or seven years old. It was so scary, all those grown-ups listening to me. But the minute I opened my mouth, it wasn’t just me doing it. Something welled up inside me, something I couldn’t keep for myself. Sometimes you don’t realize how powerful a gift is till you share it.
We lived in Checotah, Oklahoma, a small town—population 3,500, give or take—full of wide-open spaces, pastures and woods. The countryside is so flat that my husband, Mike, likes to say, “You could watch your dog run away for two days straight and still see them.” (Just for the record, we’ve got three dogs at our home in Nashville: Ace, Penny and Zero. You should see them decked out in their Christmas sweaters!)
What I loved about Checotah besides the good people was the quiet. You could hear the birds, the cicadas, the breeze.
Mom was an elementary school teacher, and Dad worked in a paper mill. We lived on a small farm where my parents bred cattle. Dad baled the hay and fed the calves in the winter. I helped out, bottle-feeding the littlest ones and giving them nicknames.
I had two older sisters, and whenever a fence got trampled by a cow or the wind blew it down—inevitably when Dad was out of town—Mom and I and whichever sister was around went out, got all the cows back in and then rigged the fence back up till Dad got home to repair it properly.
We had a TV in the living room with maybe five channels. No cable. We found better entertainment outside. I loved hunting for snakes, scooping up tadpoles and turtles from the pond, catching frogs in the ditch or fireflies in the fields—and letting them go again. My clothes were always covered with dirt and pond muck. Once I was at a friend’s house and brought in a cute little frog that I put in their kitchen sink.
“Take that thing out of here,” her mom said. “It’s disgusting.” I guess other moms weren’t as tolerant as mine was.
One Christmas, I decided I wanted Santa to bring me a TV. We only had that one in the living room. Wouldn’t it be great to have one in my own room too (even with only five channels to watch)? One glance at the tree on Christmas morning and my heart sank. No box big enough to be a TV.
I opened my presents, trying to hide my disappointment, reminding myself what Christmas was really about. Then I came to a small package, no bigger than a couple candy bars. Guess what was inside? The remote control for my new TV.
Every year, we sang all the traditional carols at church. We’d also go to the nursing home in Checotah and sing for the residents in their beds and wheelchairs, going up and down the halls, making music like the drummer boy. We weren’t allowed to give the folks any sweets, so we put apples, bananas and oranges in little paper bags to hand out. In a small town like Checotah, the Christmas spirit was contagious.
Becoming a professional singer, recording albums and performing onstage before thousands of fans—that came out of the blue. People always said I had a nice voice, and I might have daydreamed about singing for a living. But I wanted to be practical.
After I graduated from Checotah High (go, Wildcats!), I went off to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma— population 16,000, give or take—in the foothills of the Ozarks, to major in mass communications with an emphasis on broadcast journalism. If I were really lucky, maybe I’d end up on TV.
The summer before my senior year, I was home one day, watching TV—the one in the living room—and saw a news segment about people auditioning for the show American Idol. I checked online. The closest auditions were being held in St. Louis.
“How far away is St. Louis?” I asked my mom.
“Six or seven hours in the car,” she said.
Too far, I thought. Out of the question.
“Why do you want to know?” Mom asked.
“They’re having American Idol auditions there.”
“I’ll take you.” Just like that.
It would be easy to say the rest is history, that it was meant to be. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. Going through a slew of auditions in St. Louis, getting the “golden ticket” to Hollywood, every contestant’s dream, I was terrified. Every time I had to sing in front of the judges, I’d get nervous the way I did in church that first time. Then I’d say a prayer and leave it in God’s hands.
I was so distracted that when Mom and Dad were driving me to the airport to go to Hollywood, I realized I’d forgotten lip liner. We stopped at a grocery store, and Mom dashed inside to buy some. All at once, it was just too much. Going out to Los Angeles by myself, competing with all those other people who were so talented. I burst into tears.
My dad turned to me in the backseat. “Carrie,” he said, “we can go home right now, and we don’t ever have to talk about it again.”
I took a deep breath. “No,” I said at last. “I’ll go.”
In L.A., Ryan Seacrest interviewed me and asked if I’d seen any stars. “No, it’s been too cloudy,” I said, not getting that he meant famous actors and singers. That naivete, that innocence, is something I’ve come to be grateful for.
Growing up on a farm with loving parents and our church family defined my values. A small town with good people helped form me. I was rooted in something solid before I got to spread my wings.
I might be one of those stars myself these days, but Mike and I do all we can to raise our two boys with values like the ones I grew up with in Checotah. Down-to-earth, church on Sundays, plenty of grass and trees and space outside for them to roam. At night, when we put the boys to bed, we pray out loud with them. Just talking to God, letting them know he hears their every word.
Earlier this year, when I was putting together a collection of Christmas songs, I asked Isaiah if he wanted to sing on the album too. It had to be his idea. Not something I told him to do. “Okay, Mommy,” he said. We practiced together at home. He can’t read all that well yet, so we went over “Little Drummer Boy” line by line, word by word.
The morning we were supposed to go to the recording studio, he got himself dressed. He came down the stairs in his jeans that he wears to church, a button-down shirt and a little black fedora. At the studio, he sounded like a pro, singing into the mic, headphones on, “I’ll play my best for him, pa rum pum-pum-pum, rum pum-pum-pum.”
The album is out now, full of my favorites, the classics. I’d always sung them with groups of people, as we did at the nursing home back in Checotah, so I’d never had the experience of doing them solo. It was as if I were hearing the words for the first time. I’d pause over a phrase like “love’s pure light” from “Silent Night” and think, Yes, that’s exactly it. That’s who Jesus is.
The title of the album is My Gift, words that came right out of the lyrics of “Little Drummer Boy.” When we had our boys, we made sure they had biblical names, Jacob for our younger son, and Isaiah. In fact, it’s in the Book of Isaiah that we get those words we hear every Christmas, “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given….” Jesus, the son, the gift from God greater than any gift we can imagine.
Isaiah put it well that morning when we headed off to the studio. I took in his outfit, topped with the little black fedora.
“Wow, you really dressed up this morning, buddy,” I said.
“I’m gonna go sing for Jesus,” he replied, “so I wanted to look nice.”
Bringing our best to Jesus—we can all do that. What talent, passion or treasure makes you who you are? It might seem small, like that baby in the manger, or insignificant, like a boy playing a drum, but you never know until you share your gift, a gift that can help shine love’s pure light on the whole world this Christmas.
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