Kellie Pickler: Tough and True on “100 Proof”
“I was born in the wrong generation,” said Kellie Pickler, looking through the windows at Sony Music Nashville’s offices toward somewhere far south of town. “I wish I would have been in the generation before Twitter and cell phones, when there was that mysteriousness about being an artist. I wish I could have been a part of that generation where you’d go to the Ryman and sing and then walk out the back door and go honky-tonkin’. Well, we do that anyway, but because it’s on YouTube the next day, you can’t really completely cut loose.”
It’s not just the life that beckons toward Pickler. As she demonstrates on 100 Proof, her latest album on 19 Recordings Limited/BNA Records, it’s the music too. Maybe it’s the music most of all. In the opening seconds of the very first track, “Where’s Tammy Wynette” (written by Jimmy Ritchey, Don Poythress and Leslie Satcher), she kicks back and sings passionately, mashing anger and pain together in just a few notes: “I stay torn between killin’ him and lovin’ him. He stays torn between neon lights and home.” And just like that, we’re in a world lit by jukeboxes and perfumed by worn leather and spilled beer.
Where is Tammy Wynette? Maybe she lives somewhere in Pickler’s soul, nurtured by the young singer’s Southern roots and difficult early years. “Based on some of the things that I’ve recorded in the past, you wouldn’t know that the biggest reason why I fell in love with Country Music is because of Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette and Loretta and Dolly,” she said. “I know that music has changed so much; the music today is so different than the music I listened to. And I guess everyone’s definition of Country Music is different. But I’m excited about the sound that we have.”
That sound is traditional, all the way down to mixing spoons into the rhythm track on the album’s first single, “Tough” (written by Leslie Satcher). For fans drawn by the infectious pop flavor of her Platinum single “Best Days of your Life” (Pickler and Taylor Swift) or the Gold-charting “Red High Heels” (Pickler, Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo and Karyn Rochelle) and “Small Town Girl” (Pickler, Lindsey and Mayo), the new direction is unmistakable.
“I really want people to take me seriously as an artist, which has been a little difficult coming off of ‘American Idol’ since there’s such a stereotype. I was 19 and green when I did that show and you only got to know about this much of me,” said Pickler, pinching thumb and finger together. “You don’t really get to pick what you do. I mean, why would I sing a Queen song? You don’t get to develop so much as an artist. You just become a star.”
Pickler’s finish among the final six of the show’s 2005 season lofted her into unfamiliar territory. Her ascension was so quick that she had to record the vocals of her debut album, Small Town Girl, while on the road, singing to backing tracks sent from Nashville. The results broadened her appeal, but the working method and several aspects of its sound left her feeling somewhat off balance.
“I can’t say I didn’t have fun with songs like ‘Red High Heels,’ and ‘I Wonder’ (Pickler, Lindsey, Mayo and Rochelle) is my life,” she added. “But I’ve done the ‘Best Days of Your Life’ kind of songs. To me, that’s not a Country production at all. Anything I sing kind of sounds Country just because of the way I talk. But for this record, I worked with a whole different group of people. I’ve been able to just go in the studio and play and have fun and figure out what cord plugs into what instrument and what this button does. I skipped all that developing because I just became ‘American Idol Kellie Pickler,’ so it’s been a slow and long process of trying to get to the point where I am now.”
Pickler is quick to credit co-producers Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten as indispensible in helping achieve her goals for 100 Proof. The fact that she had never worked with them previously encouraged her to break from her earlier routine and start fresh. Much of what drew her to Liddell was his productions for singers with high Country credibility, including Miranda Lambert and Liddell’s wife Lee Ann Womack. Once onboard, he persuaded her to bring Wooten in as well, partly because of his extensive hands-on engineering background.
“With Kellie, part of our goal was, ‘How do we start over? How can we do some work that she hasn’t done?’” Liddell explained. “I’d heard a handful of her singles before. A couple of them were actually brilliant. But she felt they were not her. At that point, you just want to get her in the right situation and the right room where she felt real comfortable. Then we went with our gut.”
They also encouraged Pickler to dig down and write some new material that expressed what she wanted to say. “You don’t think, ‘Somebody’s going to bring me 10 songs that sound like hits. I’ll show up at the studio and sing them.’ That’s karaoke. She wanted to become more invested in what she was singing, and that entailed sitting down and writing with some people. Kellie would say, ‘Well, I’m not much of a writer,’ and she might see it as a wasted day if she didn’t come out with a No. 1 hit. But I disagreed with her. She’s learning that she is a writer and she’s getting invested in a career in a way that other people had done from the beginning.”
Liddell stayed just as involved in the tracking as in the album’s early creative stages. “Frank pushed me, he pushed Kellie and the band,” said Wooten. “There are things on this record I would never have thought of doing. One of my favorite things was a track called ‘Arm Candy’ (Pickler and Natalie Hemby, available exclusively on iTunes). We were cutting the track. It was feeling good. And Frank runs into the tracking room in the middle of the take and yells, ‘Stop! Everyone out except for bass and drums!’ Everyone was kind of shocked. But then, as we were listening back, we heard this amazing beat and bass part being laid down, which totally changed the sentiment of the song in a way I don’t think any guy in the room would have come up with. The rest of the band didn’t even play on it; they actually ended up singing kind of a doo-wop background part, with upright bass, drums and some percussion. It wouldn’t have happened if Frank hadn’t felt that we could get something better.”
“To be completely honest with you, I didn’t know the artist in me until I met Frank and Luke,” Pickler said. “They pointed out things in me I didn’t know I had. They saw it, but I didn’t.”
What they saw, and what 100 Proof uncovers, is the core of Kellie Pickler’s creative identity. The producers encouraged her self-discovery, whether by setting up and lighting candles around her as she recorded or bringing the musicians into a circle in the studio to track with her. “We cut in the old RCA Studio A, which is now Ben Folds’ studio,” Wooten said. “They don’t have isolation for each guy. Kellie was literally about 25 feet in front of the drums. I’d never cut that way, but once again that was something Frank wanted to try. It turned out for the best.”
“We were in a big circle in the big room,” Pickler remembered. “And before we started, I’d go, ‘All right, everyone, close your eyes. I want you to think about, if this was the last place you would ever be playing, what stage would it be on? Would you be at the Opry? Would you be at the Ryman? Would it be a bar in your hometown? Would it be the backyard at your grandma’s? Whatever it is, just close your eyes and let’s all go to that place and play.’”
Pickler’s eyes were closed as she spoke, perhaps herself going to wherever she was when they cut “Unlock That Honky Tonk” (Pickler and Satcher), declaiming over a stomping, banjo-studded beat, “Don’t tell me Country’s gone, ’cause I’m ’bout to tie some on.” She might have been revisiting “Stop Cheatin’ on Me” (Morgane Hayes, Liz Rose and Chris Stapleton), where her performance, especially in the artfully shaped two- and three-part harmonies, might have been laid down decades ago. One place she knows especially well comes to view in “The Letter (to Daddy)” (Pickler, Dean Dillon and Dale Dodson), a guitar-and-voice rumination on her father’s hard but successful rise from self-destruction to standing on his own, strong enough at last to give and accept love.
“I want to sell records,” she said, eyes now open, her voice self-assured. “But if I’m going to sell anything at this point, I don’t want them to be one-hit wonders, you know? Not just a fad for this generation because it’s hip and cool and right now. I want for somebody to sing one of my songs in the honky-tonks on Broadway in 50 years, like they do Loretta Lynn.
“We’re in a time today where you can’t afford to not be played on the radio,” she continued. “So most people go into the studio and the first thing is, ‘OK, how are we going to get this on the radio?’ Right there, you’re not making your record. You’re making somebody else’s record. That’s not why I’m here. I mean, ultimately I want to be on the radio, of course, but this record, these songs and the production come from a real place. And regardless if it sells a million copies or one copy, I’m happy with how this album turned out. Because my music is my life.”
By Bob Doerschuk
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