The album titles say it all. After making a splash during her 2005 “American Idol” run, Kellie Pickler recorded her debut album, the aptly named “Small Town Girl.” Pickler finished fifth during that “AI” season, but she connected with the masses courtesy of her charming Southern manner.
Even though she is beauty-contest pretty — Pickler competed for Miss Carolina 2004 — the emerging country star had a girl-next-door innocence, who dropped almost as many malapropisms as Yogi Berra during her “Idol” days.
However, Picker has morphed considerably over the years, and her latest album, “The Woman I Am,” is an accurate representation of the singer-songwriter circa 2014.
Pickler, 29, is a mature country singer with a golden set of pipes, who is an underrated songwriter. She writes and sings with a feeling reminiscent of Tammy Wynette. Even though she graduated from the “Idol” pop music factory, Pickler favors traditional country.
“I love country music,” Pickler said during a phone call from Nashville. “I love Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. There’s always been something about that traditional sound, which speaks to me. ‘Red High Heels’ was fun. It’s a sassy girls song that did well on pop country radio, but I’m in a different place now.”
“Red High Heels” is a standout track from “Small Town Girl,” but it wouldn’t fit on “The Woman I Am.” Pickler doesn’t make any concessions to radio. Much of the album is comprised of sweet, gentle, warm songs, which is what Pickler does best. There isn’t a big radio ready anthem on the album, but Pickler doesn’t need it. She’s out of the corporate music zone and has evolved considerably.
“I hope we all change,” Pickler said. “When my first album came out, I was only 19 and so green. I’m in an amazing place right now. I’ve learned a lot and have become a different person. What were you like when you were 19? Everybody changes, right?”
In a perfect world, yes, but not everybody grows. For proof, go to a high school reunion. The same can be said for recording artists. It’s easy to follow trends or make safe decisions. But Pickler, who will perform Tuesday at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, is taking some chances.
“I want to sing songs that have meaning for me,” Pickler said. “I’m not going to write a song or pick a song that might get me on the radio. There’s nothing wrong with being on the radio. In fact, it’s great to be on the radio. But I have to do it on my terms.”
Who would have guessed that Pickler would have so much integrity or be one of the top five “AI” alums? Pickler appreciates her sonic launching pad and still tunes in to watch the current group of judges and contestants.
“I think the show is phenomenal,” Pickler said. “Having Harry Connick Jr. as a judge is brilliant. He gives great constructive criticism. He’s a composer, as well as a performer. He knows what he’s talking about. Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban are terrific as well. It’s all about helping these young recording artists of tomorrow.”
Would Pickler ever consider becoming an “American Idol” judge? “They wouldn’t pick me to do that in a million years,” Pickler said, laughing. “But if they ever would consider having a former ‘American Idol’ contest, you know what, I would love it. But right now it doesn’t matter since I’m so busy with what I’m doing.”
Pickler is in the middle of a tour, which will bring her back to the Strawberry Festival, which she says is her favorite fest to play. “I absolutely love it,” Pickler said. “I’m not just saying that. When we’ve played the Strawberry Festival before, I was blown away by the fans’ response, and, well, the strawberries. I was asked if I wanted some for my bus, and they gave me these strawberries that were so huge, it was like having strawberries on steroids. The strawberries were the size of my fist. So, yeah, we love Florida. My husband and I were engaged in Rosemary Beach. It’s an awesome state, and there’s nothing like the Strawberry Festival. I can’t wait to get there, darlin’.”