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Kellie Pickler

100 Proof – 2012 (Sony Nashville)

Reviewed by Sam Gazdziak

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CDs by Kellie Pickler

Until now, Kellie Pickler has become known in country circles more for her bubbly, Dolly Parton-esque personality than for her singing. Granted, she has had some strong singles, notably the autobiographical I Wonder, but one could be forgiven for lumping her in the pile of most former American Idol contestants who hover in and around country music, but never really make an impact.

Somewhere after the release of her sophomore album, however, she started mentioning in interviews that she was going to make a country album. As in, a real country album, reminiscent of Tammy and Loretta and not just a pop album with some country flavoring thrown in. "100 Proof" is finally out, and it must be said that Pickler pulled it off. While she doesn't quite reach the levels of her heroes, she does show that, like Dolly did several decades ago, writing her off as all style and no substance is a bad idea.

Where's Tammy Wynette, the opening track, could serve as a mission statement. Referencing a country legend is commonplace these days, but unlike the so-called "outlaws" who name-drop Johnny, Waylon and Hank at every opportunity, this song serves as a fitting tribute to the legend. The verses about being "torn between killin' him and lovin' him" and threatening the local barfly who's putting the moves on her husband both pay homage to Wynette and complement Pickler perfectly. Similarly, Stop Cheatin' On Me has a classic country vibe, but it doesn't sound archaic or dated.

The album was produced by Frank Liddell (Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack) and Luke Wooten (Sunny Sweeney), and both know how to showcase a strong female voice. There is also a first-class cast of songwriters, including Chris Stapleton, Dean Dillon and multiple tunes by Leslie Satcher. However, Pickler deserves her fair share of the credit as well, not only in picking songs that suit her, but also in writing or co-writing six of them. Even on lesser tunes like Unlock the Honky Tonk, she's able to make an average song better by her sass and swagger.

Even when her singles weren't that impressive, Pickler was one of the more likable personalities in country music. That likability makes her evolution from a singer to an artist all the more gratifying to watch.