My first, immediate response to Kellie Pickler’s new album is shock. The first 4 songs suggest that there IS, in fact, “more where that came from,” as if it’s some sort of ersatz sequel to Lee Ann Womack’s stunning 2004 album. These songs are serious classic country, all steel guitars and tears and a singer who seems to have found her voice – and a surprising one at that. From there, things get decidedly more commercial – truckers’ salute (and when’s the last time you heard one of those?) “Little House on the Highway” could easily be re-sung by Rascal Flatts and be a huge smash. (For that matter, so could Pickler’s version, & hopefully her label will release it as a future single.) But the tone’s been set, or re-set.
And look at that cover! It’s totally Tammy, updated.
But for the most part, even the more contemporary-sounding material has a difference to it, a certain je ne sais grit, like first single “Tough,” in which Pickler makes it clear that she’s not a cutesy-poo high-heel-wearing poptart. Considering who she shows up super-glammed at every single country awards show, she’s not fooling me – but I’m buying anyway. It’s a great single, very country in a way her buddy Taylor Swift only hints at most of the time, and works mighty fine as a statement of new(ish) intent.
Pickler came out of ‘American Idol’ a number of seasons back as a bubbly, ditzy blonde, akin to early Dolly Parton without the songwriting chops. But she’s done plenty of on-the-job learning, because a song like “Arm Candy” could’ve been a single for Jeannie C. Riley back in ’73 – this is the kind of bubbly, silly, cute-but-not-cloying record that Nashville doesn’t make anymore. That Pickler can then turn around and cut a song like “Turn On The Radio and Dance,” all brushed snares and a guitar line straight out of a Chris Isaak song, is a testament to who she’s become. Not to mention that her control of her voice has become awful impressive, as evidenced on the big notes of “Stop Cheatin’ On Me.” From an unlikeliest place has come the first contender for the best country album of 2012. This is the real stuff. A-