HOLLYWOOD — Checotah, Oklahoma, is no longer best known for steer wrestling.
Carrie Underwood, a 22-year-old student from the tiny farm town, made history Wednesday (May 25), becoming the first country singer to win "American Idol."
"It's been an incredible season for different genres, and hopefully I opened people's eyes [to country]," Underwood said backstage.
Carrie edged out Bo Bice, who at eight years her senior, proved a seasoned stage vet with the goods to earn approval last week from BMG Chairman Clive Davis.
"I tried to put myself in the public's position — who would I vote for? — and I couldn't pick one," Underwood said. "Bo's got an incredible career ahead of him."
Certainly to Carrie's advantage was an endorsement from Simon Cowell, who pegged her as a fave to win from the get-go and then predicted her victory Tuesday night after she showcased her usual powerhouse vocals during the final number (see " 'American Idol' Recap: Carrie Gets Simon's Vote, Bo Has Proven Himself").
"I was very complimented, because in previous seasons I always agreed with what he said," said Underwood, who wins $1 million as well as a record contract and new car (which Bice also walked away with).
Cowell, who has never hidden hatred for country music, said he always looked past Carrie's songs. "I think she had a likeability factor," he said.
The outspoken judge, however, thought Bo would have won had he saved his goose-bump-inducing a cappella rendition of Badlands' "In a Dream" from last week for Tuesday's final performance night.
"In England, we call it shooting your bolt too early," Cowell said. "We didn't have the wow factor from Bo last night. He was nervous. And I don't think he liked the first song very much."
"Man, you know what? It's all good," Bo responded backstage, later adding that he in fact liked the original songs written for the finale. "I think America did a great job. I think Carrie Underwood fits the bill of American Idol" (see "Rocking Runner-Up Bo Bice Wants To Show What He's Really About").
Bo, whose hippie look and penchant for Southern rock is a far cry from past favorites like Ruben Studdard or Clay Aiken, is better off not winning, according to Paula Abdul, who took part in a spoof of the "Primetime Live" exposé about her during the finale. "It's good for his image," she said. "You know, he's a renegade."
Randy Jackson, who was pro-Bo all season, said the right person was crowned Fantasia's successor. "Carrie won the night last night, especially that last song with her connecting," he said. "I think it worked better for her than it did Bo."
Underwood reprised that song, "Inside Your Heaven," Wednesday, signaling that it will most likely be her first single.
"The lyrics are so fitting," the winner said. "I honestly believe that fate and God [had something to do with the fact] that so many doors opened up the right way for me."
Like Bo, Carrie never strayed far from her roots as week after week she picked country tunes that suited her booming voice, including the Dixie Chicks' "Sin Wagon" and Martina McBride's "Independence Day."
"I'm definitely going to stick to country, maybe some crossover, like Shania and Faith Hill," Underwood said of the impending recording career that comes with winning "Idol" (see " 'Did He Just Call My Name?' — Carrie On Her Big Win"). "That's where my heart is."
Bice also plans to stick with what he knows best.
"No one's really even seen Bo yet," he said. "It took me half the season to get used to not having a guitar wrapped around my neck. So I'm anxious for the fans to see what Bo's really about. I guarantee that if you watched the show, what you saw and what you heard, that's what you're gonna get: an album of true rooty music that's honest."
Crossing from the pop circus that is "American Idol" into the rock world might be a challenge for Bo, but he's got some rock royalty on his side.
"I'm rooting for Bo. I like his style, I like his vibe and I like that he rocks," Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, said outside the Kodak Theatre with her mother at her side.
"I've never watched it," Love said. "The word 'mainstream' comes to mind."
This story was originally published on 05.25.2005 at 10:08 p.m. ET.