Let’s start this review by going back a few years to when Kellie Pickler was opening for Taylor Swift and her “Fearless” Tour. Naturally, Taylor was the draw that sold out the arenas, but night after night it was Kellie’s singing of “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You” that was the vocal highlight of the show. The powerful and passionate performance demonstrated beyond a doubt that Kellie, who is known by most for her bubbly personality, is a serious singer.
That brings us to Kellie’s new album 100 Proof. Here she couples being a serious singer with being serious artist. That’s not to take anything away from her two previous albums (2006’s Small Town Girl and 2008’s Kellie Pickler), which both debuted at the top of the country charts. It’s about her maturing as both a person and a performer. “When I auditioned for American Idol I was not an artist,” admits the season five alum. “So from Idol to the first record to this record, I really tried to find myself because there’s a difference between a singer and an artist.”
In finding herself, Pickler lets her country roots thrive. The album opening “Where’s Tammy Wynette” displays this on many levels. Obviously, the song title is a tip of the hat to the country legend, who happens to be one of her heroes. But it’s the style and the sound of the song (heavy with twang, fiddle and steel guitar) that lets us know Kellie’s boots are firmly placed on country soil.
The same holds true for “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” which simultaneously serves as a plea and a threat to the singer’s lover. Pickler perfectly conveys a pain, sadness and subtle anger as she sings “Stop cheatin’ on me or I’ll start cheatin’ on you.” She sings it and we believe it.
Don’t get the impression that 100 Proof is 100% old-school like the Pistol Annies (not that there would be anything wrong with that!). Pickler, along with producers Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten, merges traditional with contemporary country. “Unlock That Honky Tonk” is a toe-tappin’, hip-swingin’ tale of a woman who’s ready to cut loose. “Tough,” which served as the lead single for the album, captures her feisty, fighting spirit. It was penned by Kellie’s friend Leslie Satcher, who surprised her with the song that the singer says perfectly explains how she feels inside.
Expressing feelings, especially in ballads, is where Kellie shines brightest. In “As Long As I Never See You Again,” Kellie sounds Reba-esque as she sings with a sadness and resignation in facing an all-too-relatable tale of lost love.
Kellie co-wrote six of the album’s eleven tracks. The clear standout is the deeply personal “Mother’s Day,” where once again she revisits her difficult relationship with her mother. Due to the subject, this song will be viewed as a natural companion to the tearful “I Wonder.” This time she looks both back and forward while addressing the mixed emotions of the day. Back in wishing things could’ve been different. Forward in dreaming of how it will be different when she’s in the role of the mother.
The emotion of “Mother’s Day,” while powerful, is different from that of “I Wonder.” Perhaps it’s a reflection of where Pickler is in life right now. And where that is appears to be a very good place. She and her husband, Kyle Jacobs, recently celebrated their first anniversary. He co-wrote “Mother’s Day” and his involvement illustrates a meeting of the sadness from her past with the brightness of her future.
The album ends on another personal note with “The Letter.” The song is for her father, who has overcome a slew of struggles in his life. They have had their ups and downs, but now the two are now in a good relationship. It’s reflected in the tenderness of the song in which Kellie sings: “Even in your darkest hour I could still feel the power of your love for us.”
Kellie admits to being a bit hesitant about sharing her personal experiences in song. But she knows doing so builds a bond with he fans, just like her heroes who did so in the past. “I would be devastated if Dolly would not have released songs that she’d written because they were too personal,” says Kellie. “Gosh we would not have songs like ‘I Will Always Love You.’ We wouldn’t have ‘Jolene.’ If Dolly, Loretta and Tammy did not record the songs that were so personal, then we wouldn’t have that connection with them that we do.”
With 100 Proof, Kellie will certainly strengthen the connection with her fans and make a lot more new ones along the way.
Check out: Unlock That Honky Tonk, Stop Cheatin’ On Me and Mother’s Day