Album Review: Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof

Kellie Pickler
100 Proof

From early on, it was announced that Pickler’s third album would more closely reflect the sound of the traditional country music that is closest to her heart, with Pickler claiming to have made the album “as country as I was allowed to make it.”  The bouncy steel guitars chords of opening track “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” and opening lyrics “While I’m torn between killin’ him and lovin’ him/ He stays torn between neon lights and home” quickly announce that Pickler is not kidding.

Does that mean that the album is a retro effort?  Not necessarily.  Rather, Pickler and her producers Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten effectively craft a sound that gives a respectful nod to country music’s past while simultaneously making tasteful use of modern sounds.  Thus, the album carries a strong traditionalist bent, but sounds vintage without sounding dated, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to create a fresh and modern contemporary country album while still maintaining a strong connection to the traditions of the past.

Ultimately, what really makes the album work is the fact that Pickler sounds at home and in her element throughout.  Though her technical vocal abilities are rather limited, the song selections and stylings of this album serve her well, highlighting her strengths as an interpretive singer.  Pickler herself takes writing credits on six tracks, collaborating with songwriting talents such as Dean Dillon and Leslie Satcher.  While she opts for softly wistful vocal takes on ballads such as “Long As I Never See You Again” and “Turn On the Radio and Dance,” she throws herself into the groove of “Unlock That Honky Tonk” with a loose, infectious energy.  “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)” is just a simple charming delight of a song, with a lightly catchy melody that lingers in the head long after the song has ended.  Pickler longlingly sings “Don’t stop rockin’ with me, baby” while soft, airy fiddles lend the song a pleasant breezy feel.

While “Where’s Tammy Wynette” is unfortunately tainted by association with the ill-advised name-dropping craze, it’s actually a surprisingly decent song in which a wronged housewife looks to the honky tonk heartbreak queens of the past for advice and inspiration.  Like the 2008 Heidi Newfield hit “Johnny and June,” Pickler’s “Tammy Wynette” manages to reference a legend in a way that feels genuinly reverent and fleshed-out instead of superficial.  Even better is the straight-to-the-point “Stop Cheatin’ On Me” which has lyrics that sound thematically reminiscient of Loretta Lynn’s “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me)”  The female narrator counteracts her man’s philandering ways by threatening to repay in kind, while the song is backed by a steel-laden arrangement steeped in country tradition, the likes of which are rarely heard on country radio these days.

There are moments when the formula hits weak points.  Lead single “Tough” was written by Leslie Satcher, and was written for and about Pickler, supposedly inspired by her troubled childhood – an approach that is reflected in the song’s accompanying music video.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit too obvious that the song was written, not by Pickler herself, but by a co-writer (Leslie Satcher) who did not have Pickler’s firsthand experience, as the lyrics ring hollow for want of detail.  To her credit, Pickler sings it with gusto, and her producers dress it up with plenty of fiddle and banjo, making for a song that is sonically engaging but lyrically uninspiring.  Similarly, the production and vocal elevate the not-particularly-interesting road song “Little House On the Highway” to a degree, though it still ranks as one of the album’s more forgettable cuts.  The only instance in which production becomes an issue is in the overdramatic bridge on the title track, which culminates in an intrusive guitar solo.

Pickler shines brightest when she gets personal.  Drawing on her troubled childhood, she addresses both of her parents in songs with the tracks “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy).”  The former, written by Pickler with husband Kyle Jacobs, connects solidly by isolating a specific childhood experience that many listeners can relate to – buying a Mother’s Day card, having a photo taken with one’s mother – with Pickler expressing how she wishes she could have experienced such things for herself.  Though both songs mourn the heartaches of the past, they also cast a hopeful eye toward the future.  “Mother’s Day” finds Pickler vowing to be the mother she never had, should she ever have a child of her own, while “The Letter” concludes with Pickler determining to “make up for lost time” with her estranged father.  Best of all, both tracks utilize sparse acoustic production, allowing Pickler to connect deeply with some of her most beatifully restrained and compelling vocal performances to date.

All in all, there is much that 100 Proof gets right.  By placing Pickler in the musical environment that suits her best, and giving her a strong batch of song material, 100 Proof demonstrates that Pickler’s potential is significantly greater than her previous efforts suggested.  Without a doubt, 100 Proof is Pickler’s strongest album to date, and likely one of the better mainstream releases we’ll hear this year.


  1. I was looking forward to this album, but was actually really quite disappointed. Most of the songs I thought Kellie just coasted through, without any real connection, making her performance rather unengaging – which obviously makes the songs themselves come across as uninteresting. I respect her decision to try and reflect a more traditional country sound, but to me it just felt like she was playing a role with these songs, rather than actually living them.

    The two exceptions are songs you mention as highlights above, the two dedicated to her parents. Perhaps the fact that they’re more personal leads her to turn in a better performance, or perhaps they’re simply stronger songs, but they were the only two that really held my attention.

  2. I was looking forward to this album,and I’m really quite pleased. Most of the songs showed Kellie’s’ real conviction , making her performances rather engaging – which makes the songs themselves come across as real facets of her life. I respect her decision to reflect a more traditional country sound. To me, it felt like she was invested in these songs, knowing she actually lived them.

    The two songs you mention above, the two dedicated to her parents are highlights along with the rest of these little gems.These should hold the attention of anyone. Some folks just have a harder time paying attention apparently.

  3. Sweetcheeks here! My local radio station played “Tough” a few times and I didn’t much care for it but I certainly found it to be tolerable. If radio plays a few more singles and I like them, then I might be inspired to check out Pickler’s music. So far, I’ve only really enjoyed her debut single, “Red High Heels.”

    I really like the fact that Pickler seems to have ditched the dumb blonde persona, though. I’d like to see Pickler succeed but nothing she has done so far has inspired me to check out her music. I hope that changes with her new release!

  4. I like her album. I was anticipating a traditional country album from what’s been said about it so I was slightly disappointed with it’s slightly modern sound; but I’m still pleased with it. She’s not the best singer which is probably why her vocals don’t always sell the song she’s singing, and she admits she’s not the best singer, but her album is a helluva lot better than what I’m hearing on the radio. I’ve already played the songs countless times (tough, not so much).

  5. This album, to me, establishes her as one of countrys heart break queens! I love it when a singer doesn’t belt out everything. When she sings these songs I feel it! I love every song except little house on the highway. I also love the fact she was influenced by Tammy, Dolly, Loretta, and Kitty, while so many new females cite Shania and Faith as there role models. No wonder most new music from females aside from Sunny, Ashton, And Kellie sucks!

  6. This album is immaculate. Strong, Country-infused, and vocally-flawless.

    Point blank. Kellie deserves SO much success with this incredible effort.

  7. I’m crazy about all of the songs here, but in a fair world, “Long As I Never See You Again” would be the early frontrunner for song of the year. Beautiful.

    The vocal isn’t perfect, but the overall track stacks up with some of LAW’s finest work, in my opinion. Surprised she didn’t snap the song up herself, honestly.

  8. I loved Kelly’s first album, and I was excited to listen to this cd when I heard she would be trying for a more retro country sound. I also loved her cover of Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes” on the 330 sessions, so I know she has some depth. However, overall I’m disappointed. The sound is sort of cold and uninspired. This one will probably sit, unplayed, in the backseat of my car.

  9. This is the kind of album/country music that I want Carrie Underwood to do. Kudos to Kellie for having the cojones to tell her label she’ll go traditional country on her possibly last album with them. If there’s any justice, this should be a strong contender for Album of the Year awards.

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