There are many ways to describe Kellie Pickler, with spunky, beautiful, talented and charismatic just scratching the surface. But there is one word that ties them all together and brings them to life. Kellie Pickler is real. Few people speak or sing so transparently from their hearts. Few can bridge life and art, story and song, so vibrantly and compellingly.
"My life is a country song," she has said on occasion, and no one who knows her or has watched her career evolve from her days as a breakout presence on American Idol would argue in the least. Over the course of three albums, hundreds of concert appearances, and a breathtaking 2013 win on ABCs Dancing With The Stars, she has earned the admiration and affection of countless fans, serving as both inspiration and role model.
Now, with the release of her latest album, her first for new label home Black River Entertainment, she takes yet another long step forward. The project reflects her continuing growth as an artist and as a person. It features the instrumental talents of many of Nashville's best musicians and songs from some of the city's most talented writers, as well as some she wrote herself and with co-writers including her husband Kyle Jacobs.
"This album is just Kellie Country," she says, and for a working definition we need look no further than what she wrote for the project.
"When I write a song," she says, "I just write about who I am and where I've been, where I am and what I'm going through, or about people who have had an impact on me."
The results here include the title track, "The Woman I Am," an honest look inside Kellie's worldview, "Bonnie and Clyde," a look at relationships with a sly nod to the well-known outlaw couple, and the truly remarkable "Selma Drye," which Kellie wrote about her pistol-packing, snuff-chewing great-grandmother.
As for the rest of the project, there is also her current single, "Little Bit Gypsy," and "No Cure For Crazy," both of which provide insights into Kyle's perspective on his wife. "Someone Somewhere Tonight" is a heartfelt and passionate look at the power of love to heal and restore us, to give us purpose in the midst of the good and bad that is the human condition, and others range from the sassy "Ring For Sale" to the poignant "I Forgive You."
All of it is as fresh and relevant as Kellie herself, while remaining rooted to the tradition she grew up loving.
"I want to feel what I'm saying," she says. "I want it to mean something. I go back to people like Patsy and Tammy, Loretta and Dolly, who can make you cry. You don't always hear that kind of song today. And no matter how good the song is, I have to believe you as you're singing it."
According to producer Frank Liddell, there is a reason that's never been a problem with Kellie.
"What impresses me most about Kellie is her sense of artistry," he says. "She knows who she is, what she wants to sing and what she wants to say. Its Kellies vision and shes not afraid of it. Thats the most important attribute an artist can have."
Liddell was also careful to make sure the musicians working with her augment rather than overshadow her efforts.
"Sometimes less is more as far as production goes," says Kellie. "You can strip the feeling and emotion out if you overdo it."
The fact that she hasn't is one key to her success, although there are many others. Her charm and candor have made for memorable appearances from The Ellen DeGeneres Show to GMA, from The Tonight Show to baseball's All-Star Game. Her reputation as someone who has overcome a great deal of adversity has made her a natural everywhere from USO tours to the Middle East (she is about to undertake her seventh) to charitable endeavors including St. Jude Childrens Research Hospital, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, American Cancer Society, Wounded Warrior Project and many others. Her heart-on-her-sleeve compassion was in evidence when she shaved her head in support of her friend Summer Miller, who was battling breast cancer (she is doing fine now), and to spread the message of early detection.
But it was her 2013 win on DWTS that introduced her to and impressed more people than probably anything since Idol. She charmed judge Bruno Tonioli, who cited "her honesty and sincerity as a performer, and as a person, her naturalness and unaffected charm which shines through." Those qualities, along with her grace and athleticism, helped her and partner Derek Hough to win the competition amid widespread support from peers and fans alike.
"It was such a great feeling," she says. "It was like being on Idol all over again. I mean, coming from a small town in North Carolina and having my whole town, my community, support, and it was just like, 'Wow, this is home! Nashville's really taken me in and are really supporting what I'm doing." In fact, the mirrored ball trophy and her dress from the DWTS finale are now on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Since then, fans have often held up "10" paddles in honor of her win and brought home-made mirrored balls.
"I wasn't expecting it to be a big deal or a deal at all," she says, "but it means so much that it is."
All of her success hearkens back to the big dreams that colored her otherwise troubled childhood. Fans know her story--she has recorded songs dealing with the mother who left when Kellie was two and the father who struggled with addiction--but she found solace in the home of her grandparents, Clyde and Faye Pickler, with whom she lived as a teenager, and in the songs she heard on the radio. Nashville became Oz, a magic land where life and dreams joined forces in music that spoke to real people, and she set her sights on making it there one day.
She went through her teen years with boundless energy and abundant good cheer, a popular student who entered the occasional talent pageant and worked at the local Sonic. Idol captured all the talent, charm and naiveté--she earned Simon Cowell's attention and support as she would later attract Bruno's--and led to her to Nashville and her first album, Small Town Girl, which produced three Top 20 hits, beginning with "Red High Heels". She followed with Kellie Pickler, which produced four chart hits, including the Top 10 "Best Days of Your Life," which she wrote with friend and then touring partner Taylor Swift.
Her third album was 100 Proof, as pure a country album as mainstream artists make in Nashville these days. Rolling Stone said it "may be the best traditionalist album of the year."
With her latest, she is poised for another breakthrough.
"I'm excited about the new record," she says, "about getting it out there. "I'm so blessed to be surrounded by a great team of people at Black River that not only care about the music but about people. It's been such an enjoyable process putting this first project together."
She is, more than anything, a down-to-earth fan of her genre who also happens to be one of its best interpreters, a classic country singer with a state-of-the-art approach to life. There is also an echo of her idols in her love of taking her music to fans, one show at a time.
"I love country music," she says, "and I love the stories behind the song. I love being on my bus. Like the song 'Little Bit Gypsy' says, I'm a traveling circus. I love being in that little house on the highway somewhere."
It's plain too that that's just where her fans want to continue to see her and that fact makes her someone whose future is assured.
"I believe in my heart," says Liddell, "that twenty-five years down the road, she will be known best as an iconic country artist. She has it in her and weve just seen the beginning."