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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.