“With this video, I really wanted to showcase what made me tough. And that was, first off, my relationship with my father,” she said during a recent visit to CMT. “Some people would say we have an odd relationship, considering what we’ve been through together, but we’re still so close. I wanted to shine a light on why this song came about in the first place and what it means to me.”
Pickler admitted she’s always had a “struggling” relationship with her father, due to his alcohol and drug addiction. He spent much of her childhood in jail on charges stemming from DUI and breaking into cars.
“I know so much about AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] because I grew up going to AA with my dad and Al-Anon and all that,” she said. “I’ve read the book. I know all the 12 steps, I know everything about it. And one thing that I did learn is that you have to be so patient with the person who is battling this. It’s not something that goes away. Every day it’s a battle to stay sober for my dad.”
In the provocative video, a young child sees her father getting hauled off by police. Later, a teenage girl visits him in jail, bringing a photo from their past. Finally, Pickler and the actor who portrays her father reconcile with a big hug. The dramatic storyline is inspired by real-life events.
“For most of my childhood, he was incarcerated, so I’d live with him when he wasn’t in prison, and when he was in prison, I’d live with my grandparents — his parents. And they would take me to visit him. I spent my weekends in the penitentiary, hanging out with dad,” she said.
“That made me tough. That made me strong. I was a little girl. It’s scary in a sense, but in another sense, that was all I knew, so it was normal.”
Upon meeting each other, Leslie Satcher was inspired to write the song specifically for Pickler. Yet, the singer wanted to make sure her fans know exactly what the lyrics mean to her — and that’s why the video turned out the way it did.
“When I was getting video treatments for this, people still weren’t getting what the song’s about. It’s not about me pushing some guy around,” Pickler said.
“But that seemed like the direction of every video treatment that I was getting — ’Kellie goes to this honky-tonk bar. She pushes some boy around and throws a drink in his face.’ I mean, I can do that! But it’s not what this song is about. It’s been taken in different directions, but hopefully with this video, it will get people on the right path.”
As an American Idol contestant in 2006, Pickler helped shine a national spotlight on her hometown of Albemarle, N.C., where she famously worked as a waitress at a Sonic drive-in. She said she’d just returned from a visit to her old stomping grounds, where she allowed extra time to retrace the steps of her childhood. That trip was “therapeutic,” she said.
“There are a lot of things I wish I hadn’t walked through as an adult. I would have much rather remembered them as a child,” she noted. “Sometimes your childhood memories are so great, or it might not be great, but you’re young and don’t know any different, and you don’t understand why things are the way they are. But as you get older and you become an adult, you realize that there were so many things that were wrong in that picture.”
Pickler said that some of her friends there haven’t moved beyond the rowdy ways of their youth.
“When I lived with my dad, most of his friends had kids, and they’d come over to the house. I always had kids to play with — and the parents are partying. All my dad’s friends, all of those people are dead, almost. The kids and I all could have gone down the same path, and it’s sad when you see the ones who have,” she said.
“We partied in high school, but — OK — it’s time to grow up. You can still party every now and then. You can have fun. But you can’t live the lifestyle that we were living — and that we shouldn’t have been living anyway. But I will say it’s really hard to go back and see people struggling, in the same spot they were 20 years ago or 15 years ago,” she said.
“It’s like quicksand. They’re deeper. They’re almost done. And it’s hard. It’s really hard. And you want to help people. I want to help everybody. I want to save everybody, and I’m not Jesus. I can’t save everybody. I can help, but there’s only so much you can do. At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether or not you change your life. I can’t fix you and I can’t save you. You can. You have to make that decision,” she added.
This isn’t the first time Pickler’s life has inspired a song. When she was 2 years old, her teenage mother dropped her off at Pickler’s grandparents and never returned — later citing domestic abuse in the marriage. Pickler sang about their strained relationship in her poignant ballad, “I Wonder.”
Looking back on the challenges of her youth, Pickler said, “I didn’t know any different. So when I got older, I realized, ’OK, this is not the way it’s supposed to be. This isn’t normal. What can I do differently?’ … My dad taught me life skills to survive. He gave me street smarts. He taught me how to fend for myself at a very, very young age,” she said.
Amid all the complex emotions, Pickler concluded the “Tough” video with an embrace.
“I wanted it to end on a happy note,” she said, “with my dad and I walking away together, still a part of each other’s lives.”