These are heady times for Nashville. The city is flourishing and its reputation in terms of business climate and livability has never been better. Combine those assets with the city’s most visible export—country music—and it’s easy to see why Nashville itself has become a star across the media landscape.
The signs are seemingly everywhere. There is, of course, the ABC series that bears our name, sings the songs of our best writers and provides millions of viewers with establishing shots that linger lovingly on our skyline and landmarks. There are the awards shows and concert specials that showcase our best, and the Nashville-based singers appearing all over network television, from talk, variety and outdoor shows to soaps and dramatic series.
Country artists have been especially visible on the talent shows. Trace Adkins brought his larger-than-life charisma to this year’s Celebrity Apprentice, winning a competition taken two years ago by John Rich. Blake Shelton brings humor, irreverence and a great-looking wardrobe to The Voice, and Keith Urban was the calm anchor on this year’s sometimes-contentious American Idol.
Perhaps nowhere, though, was a true country personality showcased to better effect than on this year’s Dancing With the Stars. There, Kellie Pickler dazzled three judges, the studio audience and millions of viewers with athletic prowess and pure star quality, winning the competition with a profoundly dramatic and essentially autobiographical final dance.
It was, in fact, the force and appeal of her personality that carried the day and represented so well the city and the genre its name symbolizes. One of the most impressed was DWTS judge Bruno Tonioli, the emotive Italian choreographer, who told us, “The qualities I found most appealing about Kellie are her honesty and sincerity as a performer, and as a person, her naturalness and unaffected charm which shines through.”
If that echoes Harlan Howard’s statement that country music is “three chords and the truth,” it’s a sentiment that wasn’t lost on Tonioli.
“Country music,” he said, “comes from the heart and it expresses personal and universal aspects of life as it tells your story.”
That describes Pickler’s approach as well as any bio writer could, and no one is happier to represent country music or Nashville than Pickler herself. It was, after all, country music, funneled through the radio and her grandparents’ record player during a tough childhood that provided the dream that has been her life’s north star.
“Grandpa Pickler taught me my very first country song, and that was Hank Sr.’s ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,’” she says. “I fell in love with country music because of Hank, because of Tammy, because of Kitty Wells. So it’s always been important for me to make records my grandpa would be proud of.”
The stardom that came from doing just that led her to Dancing With the Stars, and when the show wrapped for the season, she closed the circle by heading to her beloved home.
“I definitely felt the support and love from Nashville and Tennessee in general,” she says. “I always talked about how cool it would be to bring the mirrored ball home to Nashville.”
One of the biggest symbols of that support was an Opry appearance following her return, complete with fans who held up “10” paddles in honor of her win.
“People really came out to celebrate,” she says. “I really wasn’t expecting all of that. I wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal or a deal at all, but it means so much that it is.”
From there, unwinding meant immersing herself in the love affair she has with the city, from its nightlife to its abundant natural attractions. Four days after her May 21 win, a photo on her Facebook page said it all. There was Pickler on a sun-drenched, wooded stretch of the Harpeth River, her blue bikini top matching the kayak she was sitting in, holding a paddle over her head and smiling in celebration.
“Had so much fun in Hollywood,” she wrote, “but I gotta say, ‘I’m glad to be back in the country! It’s a cold beer and a kayak kinda day!”
It was pure Pickler.
“I’m a big outdoors person,” she says. “I’d rather be outside doing something, whether it’s yard work or hiking. My husband Kyle and I love to hike at Radnor Lake and Percy Warner Park, and we love to go kayaking or canoeing on the Harpeth. It’s a chance to get away from everything, have fun and have a good little workout at the same time.”
She’s a fan of the honky-tonk scene as well—she and her band played a free show at The Stage on Lower Broad during this year’s CMA Festival, and she loves showing the city off to childhood friends who visit from her native North Carolina.
“They all want to do the Nashville nightlife,” she says. “It’s neat to take someone to the Ryman Auditorium for the first time. I almost live vicariously through them, and it’s like experiencing it for the first time again.”
Despite her small-town upbringing (she was born in Albemarle, North Carolina), she has a refreshingly cosmopolitan view of the city’s offerings.
“The town is so passionate about art of all kinds,” she says. “It’s got great galleries. Whether you want to be in the music business or you love designing jewelry, there are so many talented people here who will be supportive. And it’s such an eclectic town. There are people from all over the world here pursuing passions of all kinds.”
Pickler came here pursuing a dream that began in a childhood worthy of a classic country song. Her mother left when she was 2 and her father was in and out of jail through much of her childhood. She found stability with her grandparents, Clyde and Faye Pickler, living with them as a teenager. The classic male singers—Hank Sr., Johnny Cash, George Jones, Merle Haggard—as well as Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, strong women dealing with life’s best and worst, provided the soundtrack and the vision. Nashville became Oz, a magic land where life and dreams joined forces in music that spoke to real people, especially through the radio. In fact, when her dad offered, from jail, to buy her a portable television or a radio, she chose the latter, hungering for that connection.
That she went through it all with boundless energy, athletic grace (she was a cheerleader and, briefly, a gymnastics teacher) and abundant good cheer made her popular in high school and easy to root for when she hit Idol at the age of 19, an ex-Sonic carhop whose naivete and lack of worldliness were as appealing as her smile.
Her Idol exposure helped her first album, Small Town Girl, produce three Top 20 hits, beginning with “Red High Heels”. She followed with Kellie Pickler, which produced four chart hits, including the Top 10 “Best Days of Your Life,” which she wrote with friend and touring partner Taylor Swift.
Her third album was 100 Proof, as pure a country album as mainstream artists make in Nashville these days. Rolling Stone said it “may be the best traditionalist album of the year.” But traditionalism meant it faced bigger-than-usual challenges at radio, and “Tough,” a Leslie Satcher-penned song that captured much of Pickler’s make-up, was its only Top 40 hit.
Throughout, Pickler has been visible for a number of other great reasons. She has gone on six USO tours to the Middle East and done charity work for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Red Cross, Wounded Warrior Project and many others. Then, in September 2012, she shaved her head in support of her childhood friend Summer Miller, who was battling breast cancer, and to help spread the message of the importance of early detection.
Soon afterward, she announced that she was signing with Black River Entertainment, home to country star Craig Morgan. Her first single is “Someone Somewhere Tonight,” which she calls “my favorite song I’ve given to country radio. It’s a love song, a song about redemption and final closure, about life as it’s lived by people all over the world. It’s real, and that’s what country music’s about.”
There are few artists better equipped to bring the song to life. Producer Frank Liddell (Eli Young Band, Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack), who co-produced 100 Proof as well as “Someone Somewhere Tonight,” says, “What impresses me most about Kellie is her sense of artistry. She knows who she is, what she wants to sing and what she wants to say. It’s Kellie’s vision and she’s not afraid of it. That’s the most important attribute an artist can have.”
That vision and focus was apparent on DWTS, which gave peers and fans alike the chance to see just how far Pickler had come from her Idol days.
“I approached it with a completely different mindset than I did with American Idol,” she says. “When I auditioned for Idol, it was all in hopes that it would lead me to Nashville and hopefully get me a record deal and the chance to do what I love and have a career I enjoy. That was a lot harder in that sense because it meant so much. With Dancing with the Stars, there was really nothing to lose it. I approached it more like an extracurricular activity.”
But it was quickly clear she would shine.
“Kellie Pickler is one of those people who can own a stage just by walking onto it,” says radio legend Bob Kingsley, host of Bob Kingsley’s Country Top 40. “Her energy and charisma draw people in and her talent does the rest. Kellie is one of our truest country singers and a great representative of Nashville and the country community.”
If her life is a country song, Pickler’s Black River signing and her 2011 marriage to songwriter Kyle Jacobs have helped her launch an enviable second verse. Key to that is Nashville itself. She and Kyle have friends throughout the Nashville music world, including many of the songwriters, producers and publishers who make Music Row tick.
“We have a lot of picking party nights at our house,” she says. “Our friends will come over and we just sit around a bonfire or on the porch. It’s almost like a little writers’ sanctuary. Luckily, our neighbors love country music because it’s always playing here.”
Her time on DWTS has broadened both that circle of friends and her interests.
“It’s amazing how close you get,” she says. “It becomes family and I’ve got to be honest, I miss it like crazy. I’ve been kind of moping around the house, wondering where I can find a dance instructor here. I really want to take ballet. It’s opened a new interest in me in that I’m so interested in learning about other dance styles.”
It also demonstrated the depth of her passion, the strength of her personality, and her love of a challenge.
“You get to see people step outside their comfort zone,” she says. “I would never have done anything like this or thought I would love it if I had not tried. There are so many things we all want to secretly do or try, but we get scared because of fear of failing or not being good enough. The thing is if you try you’re never a failure. You fail if you don’t try. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone and trying something new and embracing it and finding joy in it.”
As she stretched, she also helped others learn more about the industry and the city she loves.
“Dancing with the Stars has an eclectic audience,” she says, “people from all different walks of life that might not be country fans, might not know anything about our format. Seeing Wynnona Judd and me there and Sara Evans in the past, it helps introduce our format to people who might never have been interested in it. I think it’s a great thing.”
It’s given her the kind of joy promised by the most uplifting of the country songs she connected with as a girl.
“It’s so important that we all find joy in our lives,” she says. “There are going to be speed bumps in the road, but you’ve got to get over them, find joy and find people to celebrate with. It’s really about the company you keep. Every day you wake up and you have air in your lungs it’s a good day. You have to celebrate.”
It’s obvious to all who know her that she will continue to stretch, whether it’s taking up dance, heading for Broadway, returning to war zones for morale-boosting shows or challenging herself or the elements. It’s something close to the core of her personality.
“I love to jump out,” she says, “and sometimes the parachute opens and sometimes it doesn’t. But what can you do? After you jump, you can’t say, ‘Oh, I changed my mind! I want to go back up now!’”
At that core, though, she is a country singer.
Like her idol, Tammy Wynette, she gave cosmetology a brief try after high school, but, she says, “I knew I wanted to perform. I want to sell out arenas. I want to be on stage. In those days I wondered how I could ever get to the point where I could do it for a living, but I knew I would always do it, no matter what.”
She found that bridge from dream to reality in Nashville, and she pours the heart and soul of both into the lyrics she sings. It’s something her fans connect with and that Liddell is convinced will always stand her in good stead.
“I believe in my heart,” he says, “that twenty-five years down the road, she will be known best as an iconic country artist. She has it in her and we’ve just seen the beginning.”