On the new disc, due in stores Jan. 24, the singer-songwriter shows her twang more than ever before, going back to the classic country music sound she's loved all her life. With healthy doses of pedal, steel and sass, most songs sound like they could've been cut by the likes of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton back in the '60s. While Kellie admits she's not sure if today's country radio will embrace '100 Proof,' she stands by it with 100 percent confidence.
The Boot caught up with Kellie in Nashville to talk about her new album and the inspiration behind some of its most personal tunes. We also talk about her doting husband, songwriter Kyle Jacobs, and the pesky baby questions they're getting now that they've been married more than a year. In our candid chat, the sensitive singer also addresses her critics ... and prays for them.
You draw a lot from your childhood on this album, yet it also shows so much growth. What was your goal going into it?
We didn't make this record for anyone's expectations but mine. I told my producers, Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten, "I wanna make a dirty country record." I was in much more of the decision making process this time, and I know very much who I am now. I was 19 and green when I started. There's a lot that's happened since 'American Idol' ... I have a lot going on in my head, in my heart. My soul is on fire, and I'm scatterbrained! This album has as much of me as 11 songs can tell you.
There's a line in one of your new songs, 'Unlock That Honky Tonk': "Don't tell me country's gone." Was there any pressure to make this album more contemporary?
Everybody's definition of country is different. The first song I ever learned was Hank [Williams] Sr.'s 'My Bucket's Got a Hole in It' -- my Grandpa Pickler taught me that. But music changes everyday, just like movies -- they're not black and white anymore, they're in HD! I had so much fun making this record. The musicians were the best, and they've played on some of my idols' records. It's wild to think someone who played on some of George Jones and Tammy Wynette's records is gonna play on mine.
I didn't do this record for what I think people are gonna like. The song, 'Where's Tammy Wynette,' almost didn't make it on there because this generation didn't grow up on Tammy Wynette. But after they hear it -- the ones that say, "Who's Tammy Wynette?" -- I hope they go and look her up. That's my goal with this song: I want this generation to know her and appreciate her style of music like I do.
Along with the throwback sound was an old school way of recording. Tell us about the process.
We were all in one big room together, so all the music was bleeding into each other. I told [the musicians], "Close your eyes and go to the place you'd want to be if it was your last time ever singing, ever being on stage. I want you to go there, to wherever you'd be if you knew it was your last song." There was no coloring inside the lines. This album was about playing what you feel, and the musicians really made it come to life by putting a piece of themselves into it. They didn't have to go in and copy the demo.
If you had it your way, what would be the next radio single from the album?
I really don't know what people want from me, or what country radio wants for me! Isn't it crazy that I don't even have a song on the radio right now, and this album is coming out? People don't do that! It's probably not smart. But I want people to hear this album now. It's been three and a half years since my last record. I'm already writing for my next record!
'Long As I Never See You Again' would be a good choice. What's the story behind it?
Dean Dillon, Dale Dodson and I wrote that together. It was my first time ever writing with Dean -- it was so amazing. We all went back to that sad place in our lives. I'm married and happy now, but you don't forget the heartbreak. Sometimes it's good to go back and revisit those places, because it makes me appreciate Kyle even more. I love that song, but who knows if people will play it?
'Mother's Day' is tearjerker inspired by your childhood and the mother who abandoned you. Is it important to you that your mom hears that song?
No, because I didn't write that song for her. I didn't write that for anyone but me. That might sound selfish, but sometimes you have to do things for yourself. Kyle and I wrote it on Mother's Day. You cannot get away from that day -- it's on billboards, in malls and restaurants, on the radio ... So I was hurting that day, and we wrote 'Mother's Day' without intentions for anyone else to hear it. We wrote this song because I needed closure. I am happy that it's on the record, because I know a lot of other people are in similar situations, so I hope they can connect with the song and that it helps them the same way it helped me. That's what music is for.
'The Letter (to Daddy),' on the other hand, is a song about being proud of your father despite everything he put your family through with his substance abuse problems and criminal past.
There are moments in that song where my voice cracks, because when we were cutting it I was really emotional. I'm a Daddy's girl, and I will always be a part of his life. I lived with my dad whenever he was not incarcerated. And when he was in prison and I lived with my grandparents, we wrote each other letters. Every time the mail came, my daddy had written me a letter. I have them all -- every single letter he's ever written me since I was a kid. But I'd never been able to write this letter, because he was never in the place that he is now. He's not in the same place he was 20 years ago, thank God. This letter is something I've always wanted to be able to say. He's struggled his whole life with alcoholism and drug addiction, and that's something you never stop struggling with. When you're an alcoholic, you're always an alcoholic -- even if you're sober. You're going to have those days where you feel like giving up. My dad is sober today, but is he going to be tomorrow? I don't know. But I do know that I love and support him, and this song is the most special song on my record. I think it's a sweet way of saying, "We did it! We're still together, regardless."
The whole thing! I never thought I'd get married. Ask any of my closest friends, they'd say, "Kellie ain't getting married! It's not for her." I'm a redneck gypsy. [laughs] It just wasn't in my cards. Life and God proved me wrong. I'm so glad that I was wrong. God placed Kyle in my life at the exact time I needed him. He is my best friend, my soulmate. I could never imagine being with anyone else.
I'm enjoying being a wife. I want to just be a wife for awhile, and Kyle wants to be just a husband for awhile. But people are always like, "When are you having a baby?" And I feel like I'm too young! I'll be 80 one day and still say, "I'm too young!" I don't know what the future holds, but we're not planning on it happening anytime soon. We have enough kids with all our animals!
Being married now, you certainly have to deal with the pregnancy questions and rumors. What's the craziest rumor you've read about yourself lately?
I will go back home to Albemarle, and my best friends will tell me they heard I got my nose done or a facelift. No way! I'm still a kid, I don't need one! My friend goes, "Why do people think you're the Joan Rivers of Tennessee?" [laughs] I've also read that my whole family story was fabricated. I guess they were just trying to sell papers, calling it all a scam. Why would I want that?
Do you read all that stuff, or have you learned to ignore it?
You cannot read any of that stuff. You'll read 100 nice things and one bad thing, and you forget all about the nice things. All you remember is that one little devil. I don't expect anybody to like me, but I've read some stuff that has just destroyed my day. Words hurt. I don't think people realize how much power they have in their words. But you have to remember, when you judge someone, you do not define them, you define yourself.
One of my favorite Taylor [Swift] songs is 'Mean.' Everybody needed to hear that song. We live in a society where people are exactly what she says, just plain mean for no reason! People will act so horribly toward you, and they know nothing about you. People get brave behind a computer or a phone, then they act differently toward you in person.
How do you deal with the mean comments?
I do read my Twitter, and every now and then there are horrible comments. But I just pray for that person. They're bitter. The greatest words ever said to me were by a woman back home, Peggy, who's like my adopted grandma. I met her after my grandma passed away. We were talking about how mean people are, and she said, "If they're talking about you, they're giving somebody else a break. So right now, you're doing something for somebody else!"
It's hard, though. When I was on tour with Taylor, I got to a point where I had to stop reading stuff about myself. I read the most horrible, mean review of one of our shows. It had nothing to do with my set or my songs. All he talked about when he got to me was how "fat" I was, and how I was doing the same thing that Kellie Pickler's ass has been doing: going to Outback [Steakhouse]. I was heavier then, yes, but I was not in a good place mentally. I had a lot going on behind the curtain that was affecting what was going on in front of the curtain. But for that one guy who wrote about me, I'd like to think life is like a boomerang: whatever you throw out is gonna come back to you.
You have certainly lost weight since then, but you were never fat. What do you do to keep in such great shape?
A lot of it is that I'm happy now. I was not happy for a long time, for personal reasons. I would sit on my bus and eat all night. I wasn't active at all, I never went outside. I was just not in a good place. And, one of my best friends was on tour with me for eight months of her pregnancy. So every time she ate, I ate. And I gained 35 or 40 pounds. Then she had the baby and lost the weight, but I didn't have a baby! [laughs] I was just fat! You're not happy like that, and you feel sluggish. It's hard on the road, because sometimes there's nothing but fast food. But my eating is different now. I'm a vegetarian, I don't drink soft drinks and I'm very active. I'm not a gym person, and I'd never pay somebody to train me. I know what I need to do: get off my ass! I've finally gotten to that point, and I can fit into my old clothes again. I love that.
You have three albums and a year of marriage under your belt at the young age of 25. With all of the major ups and downs in your 25 years, how old do you feel emotionally?
I don't believe in "being old." Being old is a state of mind. Kyle and I were just in St. Lucia for our anniversary, and we saw this gorgeous mountain from our room. They told us we could climb it, and I just said, "I've got both of my legs and am able ... I'm gonna do it!" So we hiked all the way to the top of the mountain, and so did this 80 year old man.
What are your biggest hopes for '100 Proof'?
This could be something that comes out and doesn't sell a lot its first week. But maybe over time, as it gets passed around, who knows? It might grow into a big oak tree ... I don't expect anyone to love this record. But I love it. I lived up to my expectations on it, and I'm very proud of this album, regardless of how it does.