Artist Spotlight: Kellie Pickler's 100 Proof Country and Tough on New Album
By: Ben Foster
Kellie Pickler first got her start in the music business when she finished in sixth place on the fifth season of American Idol. Since then, she’s carved out a respectable country music career that’s yielded five Top 20 hits, including “Red High Heels,” “I Wonder,” and the Top 10 “Best Days of Your Life.” Her new album 100 Proof, which features a more traditional country sound than her previous efforts, drops today.
I had the chance to speak with Kellie Pickler in Nashville recently. In the interview that follows, she shares how her new musical direction came about while discussing how she’s grown as an artist in the years since her debut, and how music helps her find healing from painful childhood experiences.
Ben Foster: You’ve got your first new album coming out since 2008, and you’ve said that you made this album as country as you were allowed to make it. What made you want to steer your music in a more traditional direction?
Kellie Pickler: My grandparents had a big part in raising me, so the first style of music that I was ever introduced to as a kid was traditional country music. My Grandpa Pickler taught me my first song, and that was Hank Senior, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” I love the classics. That’s where my heart is. You know, I think country music is so wide right now, which is good. There’s so many different styles of country music, and I think there’s room for all of it, including that traditional sound, which is where I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve always wanted to make the kind of record that I made with this one. When I first started out, I was nineteen and green when I first moved to Nashville. I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t have any friends or any family here. You’re scared to take risks. I was scared to take risks ‘cause I didn’t want to piss anybody off and get sent back home. I definitely feel like I’ve paid somewhat certain dues where I’m in a place where I’m willing to jump, and if my parachute opens, it opens. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t!
Ben: So basically you’ve reached the point where you’re taking control of your career and saying “This is the kind of music I want to make.”
Kellie: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is the best record I’ve made as far as being consistent from the first song to the last song. I’m so proud of it. I’ve never ever been more proud of anything I’ve ever worked on like I am this project.
Ben: Which artists would you say have had the most influence over the sound and styles of this album?
Kellie: Definitely Tammy. I love Tammy Wynette. She is one of the biggest reasons why I fell in love with country music, along with Kitty Wells and Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. I think it’s important for me, when I went into the studio this time, to really just put all of myself in this record as possible, and really shine a light on the people that even influenced me to even do this in the first place, and this is where I’m the most comfortable. You know, it’s easier to be yourself than to try to be something you’re not. I’m very much a people pleaser. I want everybody to be happy; I want everybody to like me; I want to like everybody. I’ve tended in the past to kind of compensate a little bit of who I am in order to get people to like me, to be honest. It’s scary because I know for every artist – I think I speak for most every artist – when you go in the studio, it’s hard to go in the studio and not think first off “What is radio gonna play? Is this gonna be something that we can get on the radio? Are they gonna like this?” Because radio is our biggest voice in country music. It’s how people hear our songs. It’s how people know about our shows. It’s how people know that we’re still making music. The only place I’ve ever wanted to be is on the radio – on country radio. I don’t care about being on any other station except country radio. I don’t wanna be on any other station except country radio, ‘cause this is my home. This is where I wanna be, and this is where I belong. I just went in the studio and I didn’t make a record for anyone else but myself. It’s the first time I went in the studio and made my record. I did it for me, and sometimes it’s okay to be a little selfish and put yourself first.
Ben: Absolutely. That makes some of the best albums.
Kellie: I think so too! I look at people like Dolly, and I look at people like Loretta, and I look at people like Tammy and Kitty Wells. Had they played it safe, they wouldn’t be the icons that they are today. I think that it was important for me to do the same thing they did, and that was just jump. Jump out of the plane. You never know – That parachute might open, and you might have a soft landing, or it could be rocky. But either way, you’re gonna know that you took the risk to jump, and you’re not gonna have ‘what if’s.
Ben: Since you’ve been talking about some of the artists who shaped your sound, that makes me curious to ask you what is your personal favorite country albums of all time, if you have one, and why?
Kellie: Oh gosh. Goodness gracious, that’s hard to say. My grandma passed away several years ago, but she and my grandpa had this old record player, and my grandpa gave it to me about a year and a half, two years back, and I got all their vinyls, and so that’s what I listen to. I still collect vinyl records, so it’s hard to go through and say what my favorite record is. I do have a Hank Senior record that is pretty old, and it’s more of a live sound record that I listen to all the time when I’m getting ready, and it has some of his older hits that I love. But there again, there’s so many Tammy records… one of my favorite Tammy records is of course the one where it has “Bedtime Story” and “The Divorce,” and there’s “I Don’t Wanna Play House.” That is one of my favorite songs. That might be my favorite Tammy song. It’s one of my favorite Tammy songs, “’Til I Get It Right”… I mean, there’s just so many great ones, you can’t pick one.
Ben: In what ways is 100 Proof a truer reflection of yourself than your past two albums?
Kellie: I’d say that, of course this record is gonna be more me than the last one because this record is exactly where I am in my life right now. A lot’s happened. It’s been three years and four months since the last record came out, and I’m married. I married my best friend, and he’s so good to me. I’m so happy. I think when people hear the songs on this record - the people that know me, not just acquainted, and I have played this record for a couple of my very close friends – they all said ‘There you are! There’s Kellie. That’s the Kellie we know. That’s the Kellie that’s sitting in front of me.’ So I know, not because I just feel that way, but because the people that know me have stated that. And my Grandpa Pickler, he knows me better than about anybody, ‘cause he had a big part raising me, and the songs are about my life. There’s no song on this record that I sat down and thought ‘I gotta write a song for this album!’ No song was written for the intentions of being record, like “Mother’s Day” that my husband [Kyle Jacobs] and I wrote. We didn’t write that song for anybody to hear; in fact I didn’t want anybody to hear it in the first place. We just happened to write that song on Mother’s Day, and it was written for me to find closure, to heal. It just, some way or another, it made its way on the record. But for me, it’s never a premeditated plan of what this song’s gonna be about, and that it’s gonna be recorded, that it’s gonna be on the album. There’s no thought except this moment right now I need to write this song and get what’s in my heart down on paper so that I can heal – start that healing process. For me, music is so therapeutic, and there’s so much closure found in writing, and that’s why I write. I don’t write for any other reason but to find closure, and it just happened to make the record.
Ben: That personal touch really shines through on “Mother’s Day,” to me as a listener. In the songwriting, and I also thought that was one of your most compelling vocal performances that I’d heard.
Kellie: Thank you, thank you for saying that. It was important for me to make sure that songs like “The Letter,” which is just an acoustic guitar and me, and “Mother’s Day” it was important for me to make sure that these songs were not over-produced. I didn’t want any of these songs to be over-produced. I want to sell this song by the power of the lyrics, and the power of the realness behind the lyrics – that they’re true stories about my life, and it doesn’t need to be overdone.
Ben: I’d love to hear you talk about the people you got to work with for the album, such as the qualities Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten brought as producers, as well as some of the awesome songwriter’s you got to work with like Dean Dillon and Leslie Satcher.
Kellie: Frank and Luke – it really started with them, as far as they were the ones that convince me ‘You’re not just a singer; you’re an artist, and that’s what we want to capture on this record.’
Ben: There is a difference.
Kellie: Yeah, there is, and I never really thought of it that way until Luke and Frank said that. For them, the most important thing, like I said, was capturing the artist Kellie Pickler, not the singer, but the artist, and I think they captured my soul on this record. I really do believe that. And the fact that I got to write with Dean Dillon – He is to me like country music royalty. He wrote one of my favorite songs. He’s written so many of my favorite songs… “Set ‘Em Up Joe”!
Ben: He’s one of the reasons George Strait is country music royalty.
Kellie: Yeah! I was so shocked that he even took the time to write with me, because I reached out to him. I reached out to him, and asked for him if he would write with me because I’m a fan. And Leslie Satcher, I reached out to her, and they were willing to take the time to work with me on my record, and they didn’t have to. They don’t need me, Leslie and Dean. They don’t need me. I needed them. I really did, and I still need them because I’ve learned so much from them, and I know the longer I’m around them, the more I’m gonna learn. I value their opinion and their guidance.
Ben: It’s great to see you moving yourself forward in your career. That’s really awesome to see.
Kellie: Thank you so much. I feel too like I was so nineteen and green when I started. Nobody knows themselves at nineteen. You think you do, but you don’t, because you’re not supposed to. But yeah, I’m excited, and that means a lot to me that you say that, ‘cause that’s what you wanna do as an artist. You wanna touch people through your music, and have an impact on people’s lives. I think music has so much more power than it’s given credit for.