Sunday, May 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Kellie Pickler interview: 'American Idol,' dancing, old-school country music

Times Pop Music Critic

For some of us, she's still the Sushi Girl, the Calamari Kid, and that's cool with Kellie Pickler.

"I think people are still hung up on the calamari thing, on how I pronounced the 'l' in salmon and called it salllmon," Pickler tells me, referencing her "ditzy blond" rep on the fifth season of American Idol, a lifetime ago in 2006. "People still want 'Kellie Pickler' and that's okay. But I was a 19-year-old girl then. I see the world so differently now."

Indeed, tasty squid is no longer a mystery to the Albemarle, N.C., native. And neither is her confidence as a genuine artist.

When we first met Pickler, her magnetism was more robust than her talent on Idol — at least as far as we could tell sitting on the collective couch of the country. And her backstory — a vanishing mother, an incarcerated father — was sold as far more compelling than her voice, a twangy, unpredictable holler.

"I wish I would have been more confident with myself back then," she says. "Chill out a little, take it easy, not be so impatient. I've always been a strong person, but I've always been an insecure person, too. I wish I could have breathed some confidence into the person that I was. But I can't. So I don't think about it."

And why should she? If Pickler can't quite match the sheer vocal kapow of fellow show alums Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, the 27-year-old country star — who plays a solo show at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall today — has turned out to be one of the more bankable artists the Fox hit has produced.

"On Idol, you're not singing your songs," she says during our fun, casual phone chat. "Sometimes it's hard to make somebody else's songs yours. I mean, there's only one Freddie Mercury! The truth is no one can tell your story like you can tell your story."

Pickler has since released three albums, with a fourth, The Woman I Am, co-written with husband Kyle Jacobs, due out Nov. 12. Each has been a plucky, girl-strong pleasure, with some cuts, such as the playfully acidic Best Days of Your Life, co-written by close pal Taylor Swift, being downright great. Each blast of individuality helps separate her from her Idol past. And yet: "I still have women who come up to me today and say they want to adopt me," she says with a laugh.

Helping juice her post-Simon Cowell fame was a championship spin on the Dancing With the Stars parquet earlier this year. "I was terrified because I didn't know how it was going to be received in Nashville," she says of hoofing it with Derek Hough. "I'd never ballroom-danced before. I didn't want to make an a-- out of myself, although it wouldn't have been the first time for that! But the whole town came together. I just got a key to the city."

For someone who's authenticity was questioned during her Daisy Mae days on Idol — was her what's sushi cornpone shtick exactly that? — she's been a natural performer and refreshing personality. Last year, she shaved her head, essentially her blond trademark, to support a friend battling cancer. It didn't come off as manipulative; it was downright inspirational.

Plus at a time when everyone in Nashville, from Underwood to Luke Bryan, is looking to crossover, Pickler leans toward scrappy, old-school country. She's happy nodding to heroes Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton.

"I grew up on traditional music," Pickler says. "If I could go and make the most backwoods country album, I'd do that. I love the classic sound. But with today's country music, you have to find that happy medium."

Pickler has tried to push for a more Opry-ish vibe — but she often gets pushed back by label heads and tastemakers. "It's so frustrating being told something is too country," she says. "What does that even mean?!"

Her backing band is often made up of traditional guys, some of the best in the business, and yet she can't set them loose like she wants: "It's like telling a kid to go into a candy store and you can have one piece of candy but it can't have any sugar in it."

There's a certain poetic wisdom in that loopy Southern Seussian logic. And why not, right? From Kellie Pickler, we wouldn't expect, or hope for, anything less.

Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

Comments
SoundBytes: Prince, Penn and Teller, Joe Nichols, Colony House and more

SoundBytes: Prince, Penn and Teller, Joe Nichols, Colony House and more

— Prince is no longer with us, but his estate has approved a new symphonic tour of his music, to be curated by Questlove from the Roots. "4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince" is coming to the USF Sun Dome on Oct. 5. Tickets are $25 and up. Cl...
Published: 05/16/18
Ticket window: Christina Aguilera, Shawn Mendes, Dierks Bentley and Paul Anka on sale this week

Ticket window: Christina Aguilera, Shawn Mendes, Dierks Bentley and Paul Anka on sale this week

Tickets for the following events go on sale this week:• Wiz Khalifa, 6 p.m. Aug. 16 at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, Tampa, $29-$125.95, on sale at noon Friday at the box office, 4802 U.S. 301 N, and via Ticketmaster at Ticketmaster.com, ...
Published: 05/16/18
Police: T.I. arrested outside his gated community in Atlanta

Police: T.I. arrested outside his gated community in Atlanta

Rapper T.I. was arrested in Georgia while trying to enter the gated community where he lives without a key, according to reports.T.I., whose real name is Clifford Harris Jr., was charged with public drunkenness, simple assault and disorderly conduct ...
Published: 05/16/18
Top concert picks this week: Little Steven Van Zandt, Turnt Up Tour, Fiesta Maxima

Top concert picks this week: Little Steven Van Zandt, Turnt Up Tour, Fiesta Maxima

E STREET BYPASS: Little Steven and the Disciples of SoulAsk Little Steven Van Zandt to pick his favorite songwriter in rock — excluding his boss Bruce Springsteen, of course — and he has to think a minute. He admires veterans like Billie Joe Armstron...
Published: 05/16/18
Singing the blues: Study of pop music finds rise in sadness

Singing the blues: Study of pop music finds rise in sadness

NEW YORK — A study of hundreds of thousands of popular songs over the past three decades has found a downward sonic trend in happiness and an increase in sadness, as the chirpy band Wham! gave way to the moody Sam Smith. For the report in the journal...
Published: 05/16/18
Review: Justin Timberlake works his magic in wondrous stage spectacle at Tampa’s Amalie Arena

Review: Justin Timberlake works his magic in wondrous stage spectacle at Tampa’s Amalie Arena

Justin Timberlake had to be sweating long before he let it show.He must have been drenched beneath his scruffy denim jacket, given all the heated hoofing he laid to the stage at Tampa's Amalie Arena Tuesday night, even if his inscrutably straight-lac...
Published: 05/16/18
Kendrick Lamar and the Pulitzer Prize: Here’s why he’s the best songwriter alive

Kendrick Lamar and the Pulitzer Prize: Here’s why he’s the best songwriter alive

He won. He actually won. It’s still hard to believe a month later, still a mouthful of joy to say aloud: "Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar." After three Album of the Year Grammy losses in five years, most recently to Bruno Mars in Februar...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/17/18
Wiz Khalifa, Rae Sremmurd coming to the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa

Wiz Khalifa, Rae Sremmurd coming to the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa

What do you get when you mix Black and Yellow with Black Beatles?You get Wiz Khalifa and Rae Sremmurd, teaming up to take over America this summer.The Pittsburgh rapper and viral duo are joining forces for a summer tour that'll stop at Tampa's MidFlo...
Published: 05/15/18
Tampa Pig Jig 2018 lineup: Chris Young, Deer Tick, more coming to Curtis Hixon Park

Tampa Pig Jig 2018 lineup: Chris Young, Deer Tick, more coming to Curtis Hixon Park

The little festival that could just keeps getting bigger.The Tampa Pig Jig has just unveiled its most stacked concert lineup yet for its eighth edition, which returns to Curtis Hixon Park on Oct. 20.Country star Chris Young (Think Of You, I'm Comin' ...
Published: 05/15/18
Soulja Boy talks viral fame, Kanye’s tweets, ‘This Is America’ and more

Soulja Boy talks viral fame, Kanye’s tweets, ‘This Is America’ and more

The Dab. The Dougie. The Whip, the Nae Nae and the Stanky Leg.Each time you've done one of these dances, you might owe Soulja Boy a tip of your cap."I really do like the dancing, these new dances that they're coming out with. I feel like I'm a part o...
Published: 05/15/18