Album Review – Kellie Pickler’s “The Woman I Am”

kellie-picklerKellie Pickler’s 2012 album 100 Proof was like its own little country music revolution. Emanating from the unholy bowels of Sony Music Nashville, the album demonstrated Kellie snatching back creative control from the jaws of corporate music America to make the kind of record she wanted. The result was a critically-acclaimed, traditional, yet boldly forward and assertive offering that eventually landed on the tip of many music writer’s pens as the project that stood above all others in country music in 2012.

This also set the table for Kellie Pickler’s 2013 offering The Woman I Am to be one of the most anticipated releases this year. After Sony fumbled every opportunity to make 100 Proof the blockbuster it could have been in a gross example of boardroom malfeasance fit for a theme from ABC’s drama Nashville, Kellie and Sony Nashville separated, and she saddled up with the much smaller, but certainly capable and established Black River Entertainment for this new effort, far away from the trappings of her famous American Idol past, and much closer in inspiration and approach to the Outlaw legacy of country music than anyone could have ever anticipated from an American Idol alum.

Kellie, willing to focus less on the commercial flop of 100 Proof and more on its critical success, kept much of the same personnel and approach in place for The Woman I Am, including the same producer Frank Liddell. Similar to 100 Proof, The Woman I Am at times speaks very deeply from Pickler’s personal narrative. The opening track “A Little Bit Gypsy” starts the album out very strong, and similar to many of the songs on 100 Proof, it stays out of the well-worn ruts of easily-anticipated chord changes, instilling spice in the music and engaging the listener.

But as your tingling spider sense may have been telling you as you read the previous paragraph, there is a “but.” And the “but” is that a decent amount of the songwriting on The Woman I Am just doesn’t hold up to the standards Kellie Pickler set on her last record.

To start off, despite what the title of the album might infer, Kellie Pickler’s songwriting voice is somewhat buried on this project. Compared to 100 Proof where Kellie wrote or co-wrote 6 of the songs, including some of the album’s standout tracks, Kellie only has 3 co-writes on this one. What we get instead is a heavy dose of her husband, songwriter Kyle Jacobs. Overall the songwriting on The Woman I Am takes more of a professional, Nashville approach, instead of the personal one of the previous album, leaving behind that unique, signature, unpredictable flavor that made Kellie Pickler and 100 Proof such a high watermark.

kellie-pickler-the-woman-i-amThough it is the men of mainstream country music that receive the brunt of the criticism for using the same lyrical themes over and over, the women aren’t completely innocent from following songwriting formulas and falling back on crutch phrases. These revenge and “girl gone crazy” songs perpetuated by artists like Miranda Lambert, The Pistol Annies, and even Carrie Underwood where the heroine is getting back at the bad boyfriend by kicking ass and lighting stuff of fire may not be as tired as the tailgate songs, but we’re starting to get close. The Woman I Am has a couple of these songs, including the Chris Stapleton-written second track, surely slated for a single called “Ring For Sale,” and the three snaps in a ‘Z’ formation aspect of “No Cure For Crazy.” These songs are simply meant to convey attitude, and give female listeners the same dose of escapism a hellraisin’ mud song does for their male counterparts.

The Woman I Am just seems safe, like in the predictability of the songs “Closer To Nowhere” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” and though this may translate into commercial acceptance, it leaves the distinguished country music listener a little wanting. With 100 Proof the production was an excellent balance between traditional and progressive. The Woman I Am‘s production would probably be best described with a few exceptions as simply “mainstream safe.”

But it may not be fair to keep comparing The Woman I Am to 100 Proof, and the production may be more of a symptom of what the songwriters were giving Kellie and producer Frank Liddell to work with; not affording them those cool chord changes or unique themes that allow for a deeper exploration of sonic parameters, nor the inspiration from a truly original story.

Simply put, I wanted more Kellie Pickler on this album.

At the same time, The Woman I Am certainly has its moments, and starts and finishes off strong. “Little Bit Gypsy” and its progressive chord play harkens back to what made 100 Proof so cool. “Selma Drye” about Kellie Pickler’s great grandmother shows just how engaging Kellie Pickler can be when she gets deeply personal, and the songs is bolstered by a very fun, yet traditional and acoustic-driven approach. Though some of the lines of “I Forgive You” and “Where Did Your Love Go” are a little too saccharine for the deep message the songs try to convey, the messages prevail, making for standout songs. And though “Someone, Somewhere Tonight” seemed like a very curious pick for a lead single, it embodies a lot of depth and substance, and showcases Picker’s vocal strengths perfectly. Despite some of the weakness of the song matter, Kellie’s vocal performances are sensational throughout The Woman I Am.

Though The Woman I Am sort of dashes any hopes for Kellie Pickler as an artist that could crash the Music Row party from the inside out and foster a new spring of substance and roots in mainstream country music, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some good songs, and good music here. “Kellie Country” is still much better than mainstream country, and though it may be a stretch to label her an Outlaw, she is certainly a rebel, and continues to be a refreshing choice.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

Preview & Purchase Tracks from The Woman I Am