Kellie Picker's North Carolina accent and unfiltered rural perspective has made her a polarizing figure since she competed as a 2006 "American Idol" contestant, finishing sixth. Some consider her big personality and hard-country style as charming; others see her as recalling an era left behind by modern-day Nashville.
Pickler deepens the line in the sand with the hardcore country of her third album, "100 Proof." One of six tunes the singer co-wrote, "Unlock That Honky Tonk," rings the battle call; its plea to open a locked dancehall could be an allegory that country music shouldn't forego the down-home sounds that gave the genre its identity. The quality of her performances proves Pickler is right.
For "100 Proof," Pickler enlists co-producers Frank Liddell, who has worked with Miranda Lambert, and Luke Wooten, who has worked with Dierks Bentley. Both Lambert and Bentley are successful contemporary artists who embrace traditional country music. Indeed, Pickler incorporates Lambert's take-no-prisoners attitude and Bentley's rambunctious use of acoustic and electric instruments.
However, even those artists haven't cut anything as drenched in old-fashioned heartbreak as the ballad "Stop Cheatin' On Me," which would have fit country queens Connie Smith or Tammy Wynette, the latter of whom, fittingly, is the subject of one of Pickler's new songs.
Part of Pickler's appeal comes from her hard-knock story: She was raised by grandparents after her mother abandoned her and her father was beset by alcoholism and prison terms. Two new songs, co-written by Pickler, are directed at each parent, with the acoustic ballad "The Letter (To Daddy)" touchingly celebrating her father's return to sobriety and to firming up their relationship.