Kellie Pickler grows as an artist on 2nd CD

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - October 1, 2008 "Small Town Girl," released in 2006, was put together in a hurry to capitalize on her sudden fame from being one of the finalists on "American Idol." Pickler was working on songs over the phone with Nashville co-writers while on an "Idol" tour and didn't have much input on the CD's direction.

"It was so rushed and, honestly, now that it's out and I can be honest about it, there are songs on there I would never even cut," said the North Carolina native of the CD, which included the hit "Red High Heels."

She doesn't have those concerns with her new self-titled sophomore effort - an album that is arguably the introduction to the real Kellie Pickler. The 22-year-old picked the producer, the songs, and even the cover art of the CD, released this week. She also co-wrote half the 10 tracks.

"It's so good to finally say 'Here I am! This is the real me, the real deal,"' said Pickler, who wore a dark T-shirt and capris while curled up on a couch with her shoes off in her record label office.

"The first time through she was learning to write, and it was tough to be working five days then doing a day of recording and leaving again," said Joe Galante, chairman of her label group, Sony BMG Nashville. "This time it was more intense involvement because she was able to really focus on her writing. And she has had the experience of being on the road and seeing what audiences react to. She had a plan in her head of the record she wanted to make."

While Pickler's first album may not have been all she wanted, it was a pretty impressive debut nonetheless. It went to No. 1 on the country chart and established her as one of the more successful "Idols" who haven't won the whole competition. Pickler, featured on the show in 2006, came in sixth.

Of course, one of country music's biggest superstars is "Idol" winner Carrie Underwood, who took the crown in 2005. When Pickler made her debut a year later, there were plenty of comparisons. Her sound is country-pop, not unlike Underwood's. Both women are also petite blondes with powerful voices.

But David Scarlett, senior editor of "Country Weekly" magazine, said Pickler has shown she's got her own sound.

"Some comparisons are hard to escape, but they sing different types of songs in many respects," said Scarlett. "And when you hear one on the radio, you know who it is. You don't confuse them with each other."

Actually, Pickler is more musically akin to her friend Taylor Swift than to Underwood. She speaks to the concerns of teenagers and young women in songs about self-image ("Don't You Know You're Beautiful") and broken relationships ("Rocks Instead of Rice"). She and Swift even co-wrote a song together, "Best Days of Your Life," about a woman who hopes to haunt the thoughts of her old flame.

"I started songwriting after 'Idol.' I tried before but I hadn't mastered it," she said. "I think the key is to be real, to be honest. When we started to pull things from my journal - whether it was a bad breakup or a fight with a friend or a personal struggle with my family - that's when everything started to click. When I tried to make up some fictional story, I wasn't good at it. The only thing I'm good at is being me."

She penned the melancholy "Somebody to Love Me" after a particularly painful split.

"Everything in my personal life was crumbling. I'd go out and sing in front of 50,000 people and then get on my tour bus and cry. I was lonely. I just wanted someone to love me," said Pickler, who had a well-publicized relationship - and breakup - with Jordin Tootoo of the NHL's Nashville Predators and is now dating one of her co-writers, Kyle Jacobs.

She's grown up quite a bit during her short time in the limelight. Before "Idol," the former waitress lived a relatively provincial life. She'd never been on an airplane or traveled far from home. Suddenly, the private details of her life - her father going to prison, her mother abandoning her as a baby - were very public. And while she had a bubbly charm, she also became defined as ditzy, thanks to a litany of memorable, Jessica Simpson-like gaffes.

Today, she says she was just being herself - a young woman of 19 who'd never had much opportunity. Since her success, she's been trying to make up for lost time by traveling, meeting different people and getting more comfortable in the limelight.

"It was very hurtful at first. I couldn't believe that people would say such harsh things," recalled Pickler, who said she has trouble focusing on one thing and has a habit of speaking before she filters her thoughts. "It's like people forgot I'm a normal person."

But Galante thinks it's her honesty that endears her to fans. They identify with Pickler and want to know more about her.

"She's telling you how she feels and what she thinks," Galante said, "and sometimes that's not the most schooled approach, but it's delightful to be around."

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