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Kellie Pickler Returns to Her Roots on Third Album, “100 Proof” (2012)

photo by Kristin Barlowe/Sony Music Nashville

Originally published in the Feb. 6, 2012 issue of Country Weekly magazine

In an empty office on the ground floor of the building that houses her record label, Kellie Pickler settles in to a comfortable chair to chat about her new album, 100 Proof, and her life.

“Do you mind if I take off my shoes?” she asks, pausing briefly for permission before slipping off her footwear and curling up in the chair to chat with her visitor.

More and more, Kellie is getting comfortable about who she is and what her fans expect from her musically.

“This album is Kellie,” she says repeatedly, using similar, if not exactly the same words during the course of the interview. The message is clear. Four years after her last release, her eponymous sophomore album, Kellie is excited about her latest labor of love, 100 Proof. “I’m really, really happy with this record,” she says, beaming. “I’m so proud of it.”

That the album may be her most representative yet shouldn’t be a surprise. The album was produced by Frank Liddell, who is known for letting Miranda Lambert and his wife Lee Ann Womack establish their own sound, along with Luke Wooten (Dierks Bentley). “They really captured ‘Kellie’,” the native North Carolinian says. “They captured what inspired me to be a part of country music in the first place.” 

A Lifetime of Experience at 25

The 25-year-old has already earned a lifetime of experience. At 19 years old she boarded a plane for the first time and went on to become a finalist on American Idol.

Within a year she was signed to 19 Recordings/BNA Records and “Red High Heels” was her first Top 20 hit.

Along the way we learned that the bubbly blonde had a dark past. Her mother left her at age 2 and her father was an alcoholic and drug addict that had spent time in prison.

We’ve also watched her banter with Ellen DeGeneres and admit on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? that she thought Europe was a country.

Writing Songs For the People

Whether it was her music or her personality, Kellie has connected with fans.

Kellie, who co-wrote six of the album’s 11 tracks, doesn’t shy away from probing some sensitive areas. She wrote “Mother’s Day” with husband Kyle Jacobs. The song—yep, you guessed it—is about Kellie’s fractured relationship with her mother. Laden with what-might-have-been lyrics, the song was written interestingly enough on Mother’s Day 2009. 

She and Kyle, who were not yet married at the time, wrote it more for therapeutic purposes than anything else. “I called him and I said, ‘Baby, can you come over? I need you to come over, please. I just feel like I gotta write’,” Kellie recalls. “We had no intentions for anyone to ever hear it or go on the record. We just wrote it for me. Sometimes you gotta do things for yourself.

“It was written for me, but it might help other people find closure in their situation,” Kellie continues, “be it exactly like mine or a little different.”

Kellie speaks from experience. Her 2007 hit “I Wonder” also deals with her absentee mom and Kellie says she’s always surprised how even young children relate to it. “Every time I think that [people don’t want to hear ‘I Wonder’ anymore], some little girl will come to my meet-and-greet and tell me it’s her favorite song.” At one such meet-and-greet a young girl’s father pulled Kellie aside to tell her that his daughter’s mother had left her at a young age.

Mother’s Day has always been a difficult day for Kellie, especially since her grandmother, who raised her when her mother was gone and her father was in prison, died.

“I called her ‘Mom.’ She was such an amazing woman. My biological mother, she’s still my mother and I respect her and I love her,” Kellie continues, her voice breaking slightly, “ because she’s my mom. But my grandmother is the woman I called ‘Mom.’ It was hard when she passed away. It’s been 10 years.”

Meanwhile, “The Letter (To Daddy)” is exactly what it portends to be—an open letter to her alcoholic father set to music. Like “Mother’s Day,” it wasn’t really written to be recorded.

“It was the most emotional write of my life,” she says of the song she penned with Dean Dillon and Dale Dodson. “It was so good to do. It was so healing, it was so therapeutic. It’s not your typical verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus [song]. It’s just a letter. There’s no line that’s repeated. This is a letter that I’ve always wanted to write to my dad since I was a little girl, because he struggled with alchohol and drug addiction my whole life.

“Our relationship when he was incarcerated was letters,” she continues. “We wrote each other letters. I got a letter every time the mail came and I still have every single one of them. To be able to write him this letter is great.

“It’s never over,” she adds, her voice breaking once again. “If you’re an alcoholic, you’re never not an alcoholic. Everyone has a demon. My dad’s demon is alcohol and drugs. You never wake up one day and you’re not an alcoholic even if you’ve been sober 35 years. It’s something that you fight every day. He is sober now and he is doing so good. Where we are now versus where we were 20 years ago is night and day.” 

Personal and Professional Changes

That the album comes four years after her last is due to a number of things, including a shake up in management at her label and her marriage to Kyle on Jan. 1, 2011. “Sometimes it takes a little longer,” she says of the album release process. “I’ve had a lot going on behind the curtain, which I needed time to deal with.”

And what about that first year of marriage? “We’re still together!” Kellie says with a laugh. “I never expected to get married in the first place but I met Kyle and it was right. He’s such a bright light in my life. He’s the brightest light! It’s been amazing.” But don’t expect the happy couple to have children any time soon. “I don’t know what life has in store for me down the road, but I love kids,” she allows.

Tapping Into Her Roots

That 100 Proof is a decidedly traditional-leaning album is due in part to Kellie tapping into her roots and to her producers.

“Frank and Luke helped me so much find who I am,” says Kellie. “When I started this I was 19 and green and I didn’t know a damn thing about the music business. You don’t know who you are when you’re 19. You don’t know what the future holds and where you’re going to be in 10 years. I had no idea I was going to grow so much from the first album to the second album to this album.”

“Where’s Tammy Wynette” is a country as cornbread call for clarity and “Unlock That Honky Tonk” finds the singer heading to the local watering hole to forget.

While she didn’t write “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” Kellie adds an emotion-soaked vocal that makes it her own. “I’ve always been a fan of traditional country music,” says Kellie. “Country music is wide. There’s room for all of it and everyone’s definition of country music is different and that’s OK.

“The first song I ever learned was Hank Sr.’s ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It’” she continues. “I love Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette and Dolly . . .  that’s why I do this.”

Which is not to say that she’s distancing herself from her more pop-leaning titles. “Those songs are me,” she says, citing her biggest radio hit, 2008’s “Best Days of Your Life, which she co-wrote with Taylor Swift, as an example.

“Taylor and I wrote that about exactly what I was going through at that moment. The songs are Kellie, but we tried to make a record that was more commercial. ‘Best Days of Your Life’ is not a very country production, but it was the biggest song for me.

“But I want banjo and spoons and steel,” she continues. “I want dirty country.”

Mission accomplished. “Right off the bat you know you’re listening to a country record,” says Kellie of 100 Proof. “It’s Kellie’s country. I’ve never wanted to be part of any other format other than country.

“I made my record and I’m happy with it.”

Hard to argue with that.

Four Questions From Fans

Country Weekly asked our followers on Twitter to suggest questions for Kellie Pickler and they were happy to comply.

If you hadn’t done American Idol, where do you think you’d be right now? What do you think you’d be doing?—Heather Lynne Hill,  Carol Stream, Ill.

Kellie: I’d be in Nashville. I was going to move to Nashville regardless of Idol. I was going to do everything to be where I wanted to be.

Where do you go to relax?—Jess Prater, Columbia, Mo. 

Kellie: My bus. That’s my sanctuary. I love my bus. I’m so comfortable there, so happy there, I feel at home there. That’s more of my home than my house that doesn’t move.

Which country legend do you wish you could perform on stage with?—Jere Joe, Singapore

Kellie: There’s so many. I got to sing ‘9 to 5’ with Dolly one time at the Wildhorse [in Nashville] and that was amazing. I was beaming ear to ear and I was so nervous. That was so special. I would love to be able to collaborate with her, I’d love to do something with Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette obviously, but I can’t do that. 

What’s your favorite childhood memory with your grandmother Faye?—Bianca Giacoppo, Foxboro, Mass.

Kellie: My grandma and I used to sit out on her glider swing all the time, almost every day when I was little. She had these music books of kids songs, hymns, and I would sit on her lap and I would sing every song in the book everytime. She was a good grandma because she listened to everyone of them a million times.

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