Black River Entertainment (2013)

Despite her good looks, an endearing personality, a captivating story to tell, and the open embrace of the country music community, it seems like Kellie Pickler has always flown somewhere in the middle of the flock, barely visible. After finishing sixth in Season 5 of American Idol, she’s seen only modest success after three records with 19 Records/Sony Nashville, and high chart placement has continued to elude her. Even 2011’s 100 Proof, hailed by critics for its old-school approach, yielded disappointing sales.

Understandably, some of this has been that Pickler’s development as a musical artist has progressed a bit more slowly than her public persona—although she’s gotten better with every record. But some of it is just that she’s been underrated as an artist. Her fourth studio effort, The Woman I Am, is poised to change all that, putting her in a position to come into her own.

For this record, Pickler has made some smart decisions, keeping the things that have been working for her and putting aside what hasn’t. She kept her winning production team of Luke Wooten and Frank Liddel, but walked away from her prior label (citing “creative differences”) to sign with Black River Entertainment. Style-wise, she has retained much of the traditional country that helped define her as an artist on 100 Proof, but added just enough modern country-pop sensibilities to make it more accessible.

But perhaps the best thing that Pickler has kept, and indeed refined, is that she continues to allow her background to inform her music, embracing the rough-around-the-edges, strong-woman stance that has struck a nerve among fans of Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson. “I like my coffee black / Three ice cubes in my Jack / Daddy taught me how to drink like a man / That’s just the woman I am,” she sings on the title track. Elsewhere, on “No Cure for Crazy,” she confesses, “Church girls used to whisper / It’s just like the devil kissed her / But Jesus loves me just the way I am.” And as she has previously told tales on her family in her songs, she introduces us to her tough-as-nails great-grandmother in “Selma Drye:” “If I can stand up for myself / It’s ‘cause her gunpowder’s flowing through my blood.”

Lead single “Someone Somewhere Tonight” appropriately takes the closing spot on the track list, and while it has still stayed largely under the chart radar, this song really proves her artistry, demonstrating her ability to transcend personal storytelling to own an anthem. It’s a great song, delivered remarkably well, and deserves more attention than it has yet received.

Whether The Woman I Am takes her to the heights she deserves to go remains to be seen. But at the very least, Kellie Pickler has put out a record with the perfect combination of old and new, spunk and honesty. Regardless of how far it goes, this record establishes Pickler as a serious country artist who deserves to be heard.

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