The great tragedy of Kellie Pickler’s career is that she came along 30 years too late to take the rightful place in the supporting cast of Hee Haw for which her middling vocal talent, farmer’s-daughter good looks and cornpone public persona are ideally suited. Since that’s not an option, the former American Idol contestant has been shoehorned into a career as a pop-country singer, where she has only intermittently found a niche in a genre currently overrun by young, blond starlets of varying degrees of artistic mettle. While her debut album, Small Town Girl, occasionally worked by playing up Pickler’s well-known backstory, her sophomore effort is mired in mixed messages and characterized by a distinct lack of direction or identity.
With songs like “I’m Your Woman,” “Rocks Instead of Rice,” “Lucky Girl” and “Best Days of Your Life,” which all attempt to coast by on pluck and sass rather than actual substance, there’s a weightless quality to the album that’s perhaps all too fitting with Pickler’s empty-headed shtick, which might not be as much of a problem if any of those songs contained a single novel idea or turn of phrase. Since they don’t (“Best Days of Your Life,” a co-write between Pickler and Taylor Swift, illustrates that Swift is already recycling from her own limited repertoire), the majority of the album is pure Music Row fluff. Then there are the contradictions in the message of opener and lead single “Don’t You Know You’re Beautiful,” which is just barely passable as a dumbed-down rewrite of Martina McBride’s horrid “This One’s for the Girls.” Pickler, whose own physique has been notably enhanced since her days on Idol, sings, “Your worth ain’t on a price tag/It comes from within,” only to make her awareness and fondness for designer labels known on later tracks like “Lucky Girl” and closer “Going Out in Style,” on which she asks that her ashes be scattered among the Jimmy Choo shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue without any pause as to how that image might conflict with her would-be empowerment anthem.
Instead, Pickler attacks the songs with equal aplomb. Whatever faults there may be with the material (and Lord knows there are plenty), it’s to the singer’s credit that, despite her rather thin, nasal voice, she does her damnedest to sell every word of it. Unlike certain other Idol contestants to whom she’s often compared, Pickler is able to come across as human in every one of her songs. While that results in some performances, like “Rocks Instead of Rice” and “Going Out in Style,” that work primarily as camp (Pickler often recalls Lorrie Morgan in that regard), she does manage credible vocal turns on a couple of ballads. She’s a vocalist who thrives on drama, and “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You” (only slightly altered from the version that appeared on her debut) and “One Last Time” give her solid enough narrative arcs and melodies to prove that she has more potential as a country singer than Jessica Simpson or Julianne Hough.
Unfortunately, Chris Lindsay’s production does absolutely nothing to distinguish Pickler’s effort from the lackluster offerings of those two singers. Kellie Pickler is rote, overproduced Nashville pop-country, while Kellie Pickler is too forceful a personality to be reigned in by such convention. If she’s ever to transcend her supporting-player status within the country genre, she’s going to have to find a way to minimize her technical limitations and to capitalize on her potential as a memorable brand. Her sophomore album fails, then, because it does exactly the opposite and leaves lingering questions as to whether or not Pickler has the necessary self-awareness to address that problem.