For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.
The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.
The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.
Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.
She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.
She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.
My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:
Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you
This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.
I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.
Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.
I’m looking forward to giving this one a listen. I haven’t been impressed with her efforts so far, so maybe this will change my mind. I hear that she’s dropped the dumb blonde schtick, so perhaps it will be easier to take her seriously as an artist from here on out. But as you said, it’s not a good sign that the lead single has stalled at #30. If this album doesn’t sell well, it will held up as an example of why traditional country isn’t better represented in the marketplace. For that reason alone, I would llke to see it succeed.
I’ve generally gotten the impression that the “dumb blonde shtick” was something that the general public stuck to Pickler, as opposed to something she herself was consciously projecting, and that the media has exaggerated it to some extent. I think it was largely based on things like her not knowing what words mean, and not being able to answer questions correctly on “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” (which would have more to do with a limited level of education). I could be mistaken, but Pickler has never struck me as one to put on false fronts.
I’ve had a chance to listen to some of this album now and it is quite good. She is not the greatest.vocalist — she sounds like she!s singing at the very top of her register and straining to do so, but it is a huge improvement over her earlier work. “Stop Cheatin’ on Me” is excellent.
This is definitely the best mainstream album I’ve heard since LeAnn Rimes and Sunny Sweeney last summer. I would love to see it embraced by radio, but I’m not overly optimistic. Even when she releasing totally radio-friendly pop-country material, she often got mediocre reception at radio, so I’m highly doubtful that switching to traditional country music will heighten her profile at radio. Regardless, I hope this album does well, with or without radio support. It’s also great to see her learning to use her voice to a greater advangtage, as these songs were very well sung.
“Little House On the Highway” was one track that I didn’t get much out of, and I found “Tough” mildly enjoyable, though the lyrics are weaker than the usual Leslie Satcher material. “The Rockin’ Chair Song,” oddly enough, has wound up becoming possibly my favorite track, thanks in large part to those delightful fiddles.