It's been more than three years since Kellie Pickler's  self-titled sophomore album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart (No. 9 on Billboard 200), but the "American Idol" alumna has hardly been idle.
"I jumped, not giving a shit whether my parachute opened or not," Pickler ( @kelliepickler ) says of recording new album "100 Proof," arriving Jan. 24 on Sony Nashville/BNA. "I just jumped. I'm so happy that I did and that the people that worked on this album jumped with me. I love this record."
Pickler credits producers Frank Liddell ( Miranda Lambert , Lee Ann Womack ) and Luke Wooten ( Dierks Bentley , the Steeldrivers ) with helping her find her creative identity. "They really helped me discover that artist in me, [which] I've been trying to find since 'Idol,'" says the North Carolina native, who placed sixth in the show's fifth season. "Frank and Luke [said], 'Let's just find Kellie because I don't think people have really heard you sing.'"
After "American Idol," Pickler debuted atop Top Country Albums (and at No. 9 on the Billboard 200) in November 2006 with "Small Town Girl" and followed with the chart-topping self-titled set in October 2008. She's placed nine titles on Hot Country Songs, among them the RIAA-certified gold single "Red High Heels," "I Wonder," "Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You" and "Best Days of Your Life," the lattermost cut a top 10 hit she co-wrote with Taylor Swift .
The songs on "100 Proof" boast a more traditional country flavor. "I really wanted steel guitar, banjo and fiddle," Pickler says. "I wanted this album to reflect why I do this. It's because of Tammy Wynette , Loretta Lynn , Dolly Parton  and Kitty Wells . Those women inspired me. I'm not trying to be them by no means. This record is 'Kellie.' However, it also has a little bit of the people that inspired me sprinkled throughout."
Lyrically, Pickler delves into highly personal territory. "Mother's Day," which she co-wrote with husband Kyle Jacobs, explores her feelings on the holiday as she reflects on her mother abandoning her as a child. "When Kyle and I wrote that song we had no intention of playing it for anybody," she says. "I needed closure and I needed something to lift me out of a dark place. We wrote that song for that reason. It got heard through the grapevine and now it's on the record."
"100 Proof" also features the kind of sassy anthems the blonde bombshell is known for, among them the feisty opener, "Where's Tammy Wynette?," and the rollicking "Unlock That Honky Tonk." The first single, "Tough," stalled at No. 30, and the label is taking a different approach with the next release.
"We've actually started working a single to secondary radio -- it's the title cut," Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton says. "It's an amazing record. We wanted to start a little traction and groundswell at secondary radio instead of pulling the switch and going to the front-line 150 reporting stations . . . It's a nice, steady campaign through secondary radio and the plan would be to go ahead to mainstream country radio."
Even in the absence of a hit, Pickler is one of the format's most visible artists. "Kellie is such a celebrity in country music," Overton says. "Ellen DeGeneres loves her and would have her on every week. We have people asking her for all sorts of things all the time, so we said, 'Let's capitalize on that and build the celebrity side, and while we're doing that let's let them know she has new music.' I think we're going to have a really good first week."
Overton notes that the label took advantage of TV opportunities in December with Pickler performing on the Country Music Assn.'s Christmas special as well as Michael Bublé's  holiday show. "We did a lot through the holiday season and set up preorders for her album on Walmart.com, iTunes and Amazon," he says. "We have a contest on Taste of Country for someone to win an autographed guitar. Through Sony Music Nashville's Facebook app, we're doing a preview of all the songs on the album one day at a time. We're trying to hit every type of media to get to the consumers directly."
- The 615