Kellie Pickler

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Kellie Pickler’s life has played out like a classic country song. From her hardscrabble, small town roots to center stage on American Idol to the top of the country charts, Kellie has proven that talent, beauty, hard work and determination are a potent combination. Like her heroes, Dolly, Tammy and Loretta, Pickler has captured the loyalty of the country audience with her gift for being genuine in her life and art.

Never has that been more evident than her new album, 100 Proof, a collection of songs that reverberate with an emotional intensity hinted at on her first two albums, but fully blossoming in this new season of the young artist’s life. “When I auditioned for American Idol I was not an artist,” the season five alum admits. “So from Idol to the first record to this record, I really tried to find myself because there’s a difference between a singer and an artist.”

On 100 Proof, Pickler revels in that difference. Always engaging, her voice has become more compelling as she’s found a way to tap into her life experience and produce art that resonates profoundly. “For me country music is about telling stories and behind every country song there is a story about somebody’s life,” Pickler says. “It’s about real things. Our fans gravitate toward things that are relatable so when they get into a car and turn on the radio and hear a song like ‘I Wonder’ or ‘Mother’s Day,’ they might identify with that story and feel they are not alone.”

Despite her tender age, Pickler has lived a lot of life and she’s a master when it comes to crafting songs that strike a universal chord. “I Wonder” is the emotional hit that elevated Pickler from vivacious new country bombshell to a heartfelt songwriter and serious conveyor of songs. She continues along her path of self-examination with “Mother’s Day,” a song on her new album that finds Pickler in an exceptionally vulnerable mode as she again examines one of life’s most complicated relationships—mother and daughter.

“At first I thought ‘I don’t know if I want to sing about this again because I talked about it a lot with ‘I Wonder’,” she says of dissecting her feelings about her mother in her music. “But every time I think that, some little girl will come to my meet and greet that day and tell me that’s her favorite song.”

If fans relate to Pickler, it’s because she’s always been an open book. She wears her heart on her sleeve and is never hesitant to discuss her past and its impact on her present. Her story is now familiar. She was raised by her grandparents in tiny Albemarle, NC. Her mother abandoned Kellie and her father was incarcerated much of her young life.

American Idol opened a door for Pickler to start making her dreams come true. She finished sixth on the fifth season of the popular competition and signed with 19 Recordings/BNA Records. Her debut set, Small Town Girl, launched with the sassy hit “Red High Heels.” Pickler continued to earn fans with “I Wonder” and “Things That Never Cross a Man’s Mind.” Her self-titled sophomore album further built on her reputation for delivering songs that were both substantive and entertaining, including the hits “Don’t You Know You’re Beautiful,” “Best Days of Your Life” and “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You.”

In recording her new album, Pickler teamed with producer Frank Liddell (Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack) and Luke Wooten and credits them with helping her discover who she really is as an artist. “I just really got to explore with this record,” she says. “We went into Javelina Studios. Elvis Presley and Tammy Wynette recorded there. When you listen to the record, you’ll be able to tell we sang and played in the same room. None of the instruments were closed off. We were all playing together. The drums are bleeding in with the bass and steel. Some of the musicians that played on the record had played for Tammy back in the day and played for George Jones, people that made me fall in love with country music.”

100 Proof is a diverse collection that showcases Pickler’s ability to appreciate country music’s history while building its future. “I love traditional country music because that’s what I grew up listening to,” she says. “My grandpa Pickler taught me my first country song, ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,’ by Hank Sr. Tammy Wynette is one of the biggest reasons why I even do this. I wish so bad that I could have been born in that generation and sang country music then. To be able to have shared the stage with Tammy and sing one of her songs would have been magical. I love Tammy, Dolly, Loretta, and Kitty Wells. I love all the classics. That’s where my soul is, so hopefully with this record it translates that through to the music.”

“Stop Cheating on Me” is a traditional country tune that would make Tammy proud, and it reveals Pickler’s ablity to wring every nuance of emotion out of a powerful lyric. “That’s one of my favorite songs on this record,” Pickler says, “Chris Stapleton and his wife Morgan wrote that. They are singing the harmony on it as well.”

“Where’s Tammy Wynette?” is the lively opening track that kicks the album off with a slice of tongue-in-cheek fun and a nod to a country icon. Penned by Pickler and pal Leslie Satcher, “Unlock that Honky Tonk” is a gutsy song for wronged women looking to relieve their pain. “Little House on the Highway” is a spirited ode to life on the road. The song, “Tough,” is an anthem that Pickler delivers with grit and conviction. Satcher penned the song specifically for Pickler. “We got to talking about my life, how I grew up, how I got to Nashville and how I got to where I am,” recalls Pickler. “I didn’t know she was going to do it, but she took my story home and she wrote ‘Tough’ that day. She said, ‘This is how I would describe you. This is my song for you,’ and it’s so wild because she just hit it right on like what I feel inside.”

It is no secret Pickler possesses the feisty attitude to turn any up tempo number into a bonafide event, but it’s on the ballads where she especially shines. Pickler co-wrote the bulk of the album, including two highly personal songs. “Mother’s Day” shares the feelings she wrestles with on that particular holiday while “The Letter” is an emotional missive to her father with whom Pickler now has a good relationship. “During my childhood we communicated a lot through letters. I still have a box with every single letter that he ever sent me when he was incarcerated,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be able to sit down and write this letter to my dad. I wanted there to come a day that I could write ‘I’m so proud of you for overcoming this.’”

Pickler admits to having reservations about sharing so much of her life with her audience, but feels honesty trumps privacy when it comes to songwriting. “There’s not a wall there,” she says of the distance between herself and her fans. And she’s thankful to those who paved the way for that kind of bond. “I would be devastated if Dolly would not have released songs that she’d written because they were too personal. Gosh we would not have songs like ‘I Will Always Love You.’ We wouldn’t have ‘Jolene.’ If Dolly, Loretta and Tammy did not record the songs that were so personal, then we wouldn’t have that connection with them that we do.”

Pickler is all about establishing that connection with her audience, and the title track is yet another example of life imitating art. It’s a song, Pickler, who wed songwriter Kyle Jacobs on New Year’s Day 2011, can relate to every time she sings it. “I’ve been both girls in this song,” she says. “I’ve been the girl that I’m singing about in the verses that is not in a good place and not in a good relationship. I’ve been in there so if I would have heard this song four or five years ago, I would never have cut it because I didn’t have that love. I didn’t have 100 proof, but Kyle came along and now I’m the girl in the chorus. I’m that girl and we are that couple. I’m glad to be on the other side.”

Kellie Pickler will be the first to tell you that these days she’s on the other side of a lot of hard times, and she’s a stronger woman because of it. “My life did a 180 the day I got in line for American Idol. My whole world completely turned,” she says. “I really do think that music heals. It has healed me in so many ways and I want to write about it. I don’t know how to write about something that’s not real. My life is a country song.”

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