Kellie Pickler Proves Herself With 100 Proof

New Album Is Inspired by Traditional Country Music

Kellie Pickler says she approached her third album, 100 Proof, with one goal in mind: “I really wanted to take people back to the roots of country music, the music that I grew up on.”

And her new album proves that she meant it. 100 Proof leans heavily on traditional country themes, like cheating, family relationships and getting rowdy at the bar. And even the casual listener can’t miss the steel guitar, fiddles and lots of twang.

Pickler arrived on the country scene shortly after charming viewers on American Idol in 2005. Since then, her hits have included “Red High Heels,” “I Wonder,” “Best Days of Your Life” and “Tough.” During a visit to CMT, the North Carolina native chatted about her enduring heroes, her estranged mother and the music she finds underneath her windshield wipers.

CMT.com: Congratulations on the new album. I can tell you put some hard work into it.

Pickler: I’ve never, ever put more of myself into anything, ever. I went in the studio, and I didn’t worry about what other people thought. It was the first time that I did that, to be honest with you. I started out really young in this business. I was 19 and green. You don’t know who you are at 19. You’re not supposed to. You’re jumping out into the world and figuring out who you are and where you’re supposed to be. It takes a while to get to that place where you’re stable, happy with yourself, you know who you are — and you’re not afraid to be vocal about who you are.

It sounds like you’ve gained some confidence, too.

I feel like I really went back to my roots with this record, and that was my goal. What inspired me to be in this format in the first place was being influenced tremendously by Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. … I wanted to do what they did. “I’m gonna be a honky-tonk girl,” you know? “I’m gonna be a honky-tonk angel!” This album starts off with a song called “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” and as soon as that guitar lick comes in and I sing, “I’ve been torn between killing him and loving him,” you know you’re going to listen to a country record. I’m really, really pleased with it. The musicians that played on this record are the best musicians in the world. I think Nashville has the best talent anywhere.

There’s steel guitar all over this album. What do you think that brings out in the music that you’re making?

Steel guitar is one of my absolute favorite instruments. There’s something about the sound. It’s almost like it’s crying at times. You can feel the heartache or you can feel the fun that it’s having, I guess you could say. In songs like “Stop Cheating on Me,” it’s funny and really lighthearted — the steel guitar in that song is a smartass, you know? The steel guitar in “Mother’s Day” is crying, is emotional, is letting go.

“Mother’s Day” is very honest. Does it make you nervous that your mom will hear it?

It doesn’t necessarily make me nervous. I didn’t write this song for her. With “I Wonder,” at the age I was at the time and the place I was in my life, that song was written not just for me, but it was written to her. It’s unanswered questions from a child’s standpoint, through the eyes of a child. When people hear “Mother’s Day,” they will get the feeling that one of the most important things about this song is that it does express forgiveness. … I don’t think this song was written in a hateful way. I don’t hate my mother — by no means. I went through all the stages of being hurt and crying and being pissed, angry, just all of those emotions. The thing that I learned is that it wasn’t doing anything for me. It wasn’t helping. It was not fixing anything.

And you’re not moving forward when you live like that, either.

If anything, it was dragging me back and weighing me down. It wasn’t until I got to the place of thinking, “You know what? Every day I ask God to forgive me. And who am I to not forgive my mother — or forgive anyone?” So I forgive her and I love her. She’s my mother. It’s unfortunate our situation is the way that it is. Is it going to be different down the road? I don’t know — because I don’t know where God is going to have me. I don’t know exactly the path that God has for me, and we’re not supposed to know. We’re supposed to pray and get through today.

When people bring you songs now, what kind of songs are they giving you?

Because of “Red High Heels,” everybody wants to give me shoe songs! (laughs) If there’s a line in a song about shoes or heels or whatever, it’s going to be under my windshield wiper in the parking lot. I mean, there are so many songwriters in this town. I don’t mind if I come to the car and you put a CD in my windshield wiper. I’m like, “Great!” I love to hear new stuff. I don’t want to hear the same stuff all the time. I love hearing music that people have sat down and poured their soul into. It’s fresh, it’s different and I’ve never heard it before. You never know, there could be a hit on there.

Songwriters need a champion, too. Someone to say, “I like what you’re doing.”

Well, without the songwriters, you ain’t got a damn song! There’s no song to sing without a writer. Nashville, to me, is based on songwriting. … People have the passion for music. They come here to bring their dreams to this town and put in the pot whatever they have to give. I love that.

You can finally belong here. You finally find a place where you fit.

Yeah, you finally belong. I know sometimes people will look at you silly in some different places if you’re writing a song. I mean, I’ve had people laugh at me so many times back home, prior to Idol. I’m trying to write a song, and they just didn’t get it, and they don’t understand. Looking at it now, I can’t expect them to understand because they don’t have the same passion that I do. I love music — country music. It’s the only thing I really listen to.