Kellie Pickler resides in sort of a country music no man’s land to a certain degree at the moment. Recently her music has taken a very decidedly traditional, independent direction, specifically with her last album 100 Proof that was named country Album of the Year by Saving Country Music, Rolling Stone, and others. But her past is very heavily steeped in the mainstream music industry, being an American Idol alumni who was initially signed to Sony, who subsequently competed on Dancing With the Stars (and won last season), and who started off in the entertainment world participating in beauty pageants.
This type of resume is what makes mainstream fans salivate, while it makes traditional and independent fans look at Kellie Pickler spuriously. Authenticity is such a key factor in classic country music; in selling the pain behind your voice and words to discerning fans. As sad as it was that the mainstream country industry seemed to abandon Kellie Pickler in her moment of creative breakout and unbridled expression, it may be just as sad that the classic, independent country world couldn’t connect with her as authentic.
The stereotype for artists that come from the reality TV world is that they didn’t have to work for what they got. It was all handed to them. How are they supposed to sing with soul when they haven’t experienced the pain of real life? But few spend the time to actually dig into the past of these artists to see just how their personal narratives may play out in their music, and with Kellie Pickler, she’s experienced more real world pain than most.
To say that Kellie Pickler’s personal life growing up was tumultuous would be a remark that resides somewhere between a gross understatement and a dramatic oversimplification. Kellie Pickler hasn’t seen her mother in over 15 years, since Kellie was roughly 11-years-old. Her father at last report was a fugitive wanted by the State of Florida. And that’s just where the story begins.
Before Kellie was even 2-years-old, her mother was arrested for writing hot checks and passing a fake prescription for Valium to the pharmacy of the Wal-Mart she worked at in Albermarle, North Carolina, just east of Charlotte. Kellie’s parents split up the day after her 2nd birthday, and in July of 1989, Kellie’s mother vanished completely.
This left Kellie in the custody of her father, Clyde, who was constantly in and out of incarceration for numerous charges including drunk driving, assault, and armed robbery. “He’d get out of prison, get on drugs really bad, get tied up with the wrong people,” Kellie explained to The Charlotte Observer in 2006.
When both of Kellie’s parents were gone or incarcerated, she would stay with her grandparents, who Kellie cites as one of her biggest influences. In stark contrast to her traditional home, her grandparents’ house was a stable environment, and with her father incarcerated, it became Kellie’s permanent home until Kellie was in the fourth grade. That is when Kellie’s mother returned to Albermarle after living in California, and Kellie became stuck in the middle of a nasty custody battle.
“My grandparents and I were eating out and my mother was in there with some of her friends,” Kellie recalls. “I don’t know how I knew it was her, but we made eye contact. She went to court trying to fight for custody of me.” Kellie’s mother won, and Kellie was placed back into a chaotic environment. “During that time, she was physically and mentally abusive of me,” Kellie says. For two years, Kellie’s grandparents fought in the courts to get her back, and in 1997 they finally won. Kellie Pickler has not seen her mother since.
Meanwhile Kellie’s father was in and out of the correctional system. Kellie grew older and got a job as a car hop at Sonic, started competing in beauty pageants, and eventually tried out for American Idol. While Kellie was advancing in the competition, her father Clyde sat in a Florida State Prison for stabbing a man in New Port Richey, FL, running from police, and ramming a police cruiser. Pickler would write letters to him, filling him in on her progress on the show.
Kellie eventually was eliminated from American Idol, finishing 6th. A week later on May 6th, 2006, her father was released from prison.
Kellie Pickler made strong and public attempts to make amends with her father and support his rehabilitation, but as her post-Idol career took off, Clyde Pickler couldn’t stay out of trouble. In May of 2007, Clyde was arrested in Albermarle on three counts of felony larceny for stealing old, abandoned vehicles and selling them to scrap yards. On February 7th, 2009, Clyde Pickler was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon when he attacked a female companion with a steak knife.
Just as the criminal record of her father was a theme when Kellie was competing on American Idol, it became another story line shortly after she competed and won Dancing With The Stars. A week after her win in May of 2013, her father was listed as a fugitive by the State of Florida for leaving the state in violation of his probation.
But none of this personal history makes Kellie Pickler a good country singer or songwriter, just like the lack of a tragic personal narrative doesn’t necessarily make a performer unqualified for writing or performing country music. Where Kellie’s story goes from tragic to inspiring is how she has used her real life struggles as inspiration in her music, very directly and very personally, not trying to hide her unfortunate past, but presenting it front and center in her music.
Kellie’s first exploration of her personal story through music came with the song “I Wonder” from her first album from 2007, Small Town Girl. The song, and the truth behind it delivered one of the most memorable moments in recent memory on the CMA Awards where Kellie broke down during her performance and received a standing ovation.
Kellie’s last album 100 Proof delved even deeper. From the video of the song “Tough” that depicts a very young Kellie witnessing her father getting arrested in the family home, to the very personal songs “Mothers Day” and ” The Letter (To Daddy)” written for her mom and dad respectively, Kellie Pickler has proven that her creativity and honesty of expression can match her country cred, and that her life is truly a country song in every sense.
Kellie Pickler releases a new album “The Woman I Am” November 11th.