10 Years Ago: Kellie Pickler Returned to Her Roots with ‘100 Proof’

Did you know Chris Stapleton wrote and sang on this album before he became a star?

Written by Jeremy Chua
10 Years Ago: Kellie Pickler Returned to Her Roots with ‘100 Proof’
Kellie Pickler, Photo by Robby Klein; Chris Stapleton, Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Remember when country star and multi-media personality Kellie Pickler returned to her roots with her 2012 album, 100 Proof? The record was a sharp deviation from the pop-inflected country sound she had on her 2008 sophomore self-titled record. Yes, the same album that spawned the singles “Don’t You Know You’re Beautiful,” “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You,” “Makin’ Me Fall In Love Again” and of course, her first Top 10 single, “Best Day of Your Life,” which she co-wrote with Taylor Swift. 

While Pickler loved and appreciated what the era did for her, there was a disconnect between the music and her soul — and she was candid about it. 

“I’ve found that I’ve made compromises in the past and I feel like I’ve already been down that road where I’ve tried to make the record that I’ve felt like everyone else wanted from me. So I’ve already done that, and that’s no fun,” Pickler told Sounds Like Nashville in a 2012 interview.

Enter: 100 Proof.

Kellie Pickler; Cover art courtesy of Sony Music Nashville

Boasting a collectively neo-traditional, straight-laced direction that fleshes out her country roots and musical influences, Pickler’s third studio album was very much her artistic return to form. Perhaps unbeknownst to fans, the textured sound of 100 Proof was actually conceptualized when Pickler told her producers Luke Wooten and Frank Liddell that she wanted a “dirty country record.” Ask and ye shall receive.

A tight 11-track collection, 100 Proof featured some of Nashville’s finest session players such as Paul Franklin, Glen Duncan and Randy Scruggs, as well as compelling storytelling by top-tiered songwriters like Dean Dillon, Brent Cobb, Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose, James T. Slater, Barry Dean, and Chris Stapleton and his wife Morgane (who went by the name of Morgane Hayes then). Additionally, the two Stapleton’s were featured as background vocalists on the album, long before the “Tennessee Whiskey” hitmaker emerged as a solo artist.

chris stapleton
Chris Stapleton performs “Starting Over” at “The 54th Annual CMA Awards,” on Wednesday, November 11, 2020; live on ABC from Music City Center in Downtown Nashville; Photo courtesy of CMA

“I’m so happy to see not just country music, but other formats embrace him as well. Chris Stapleton is one of the greatest assets we have in our format,” Pickler told Larry King in 2015. “He’s been around for years and years writing songs, singing on everyone’s record, and making demos. He and his wife Morgane are just good, salt of the earth people.”

On 100 Proof, it’s clear how much influence country music’s trailblazing women had on her. “I love Tammy Wynette, she’s a big reason why I fell in love with country music. You wouldn’t know that if you listened to past things,” the songstress shared with The Associated Press. “I love Loretta Lynn, I love Dolly, I love Kitty Wells. I love that sound. I wanted to sprinkle a little bit of the people that influenced me to be here in the first place, but make it my record.”

100 Proof was previewed in 2011 with its lead single, “Tough.” Written by Leslie Satcher and Pickler, the autobiographical barnstorming anthem proudly featured plenty of fiddle, steel guitar, banjo and spoon. Peaking at No. 30 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, it was followed by the LP’s captivating title track as the second single. Unfortunately in June 2012, barely into its rotation on country radio, Pickler and her then-record label Sony Music Nashville mutually agreed to end their contract. Consequently, the commercial run of Pickler’s album was prematurely terminated. 

In a later interview with Entertainment Weekly’s (and now YouTube country music critic) Grady Smith, Pickler provided the unvarnished truth about what happened. “Well, [100 Proof] wasn’t promoted. When my album came out, I didn’t even have a song out on the radio. Nobody does that. [The label was] spread thin. When I was making my record, the CEO left. He retired. They brought in Gary [Overton]. My A&R left. They brought in somebody else. I went through four heads of promotion when my record was coming out. The only consistency was inconsistency.”

“Recording this album, to be honest — and I don’t mind saying this — the process was hell,” she added. “We couldn’t agree on songs. The thing is, my life is a country song. I don’t need to be manufactured, and I don’t need anyone to tell me what to say or what to sing.”

While 100 Proof failed to notch rocket-high sales or chart numbers, it proved to be a favorite amongst critics, having been named as 2012’s best country album by Rolling Stone. “It feels good because I feel accepted for being myself,” Pickler told CMT of the honor. “[This] honor reinforces that I made the right decisions and that I picked the right songs.”

As soon as one hits play on 100 Proof, the first thing they’ll hear is an opening lick and Pickler’s undeniably-country lament, “I stay torn between killing him and loving him / He stays torn between neon lights and home.” The rollicking opener “Where’s Tammy Wynette” sets the tone for what’s to come — pure, honest and traditional-leaning country tunes.

Pickler follows that with the foot-stomping “Unlock That Honky Tonk,” before getting to “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” the project’s most timeless and rootsy offering. In true country fashion, the stone-cold traditional tune brings to life the age-old adage, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

“Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose wrote [‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’]. It was the first song that was MP3-ed to me late, late one night,” Pickler recalled in an interview with Billboard’s Chuck Dauphin. “I was laying in bed and Luke Wooten, who’s a co-producer on this project, sent me this song. I couldn’t really hear it great because it was a little work tape, but I could hear it well enough to know [that] this is a country song. This is country music to me.

“Stop Cheatin’ On Me” has grown to be a staple in Pickler’s setlist over the years. “You can’t be in country music and not have some cheating songs, right?” she often quips at her shows before performing the song. “Stop cheatin’ on me, it ain’t that hard to do / Stop cheatin’ on me, or I’ll start cheatin’ on you,” she warns in the pedal steel-driven chorus with both affection and a menacing grin.

However, cheating songs only take up a tiny fraction of the record. When the North Carolina native recorded 100 Proof, she was somewhere between readying to be married and being a newlywed. Eventually, she eloped with her songwriter/producer husband Kyle Jacobs on Jan. 1, 2011, and 100 Proof dropped over a year later on Jan. 24, 2022. Thus it was inevitable that romance be a major theme on the album, as evidenced in the breezy love songs, “Turn On The Radio and Dance” and “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song).”

Furthering her commitment to honesty on the record, Pickler also didn’t shy away from singing about her by-then-very-public frayed relationships with her separated parents. On “Mother’s Day,” written by Pickler and Jacobs, the young woman ruminates on the emotionally-tormenting namesake occasion. Conversely, on the acoustic “The Letter (To Daddy),” Pickler pens a heartfelt letter to her father, who had battled alcoholism for years.

“It didn’t happen in an instant, it happened in God’s time / You’ve finally gotten sober and found some peace of mind / You faced all your demons and they finally set you free / With your back to the bottle, you’re finally facing me.” It’s a touching closing track to a delicate yet unapologetically self-reflective album. 

“I’m so proud of this record from the first song to the last song. I’ve never really poured my soul into anything like I have 100 Proof,” she told Billboard. “Each song [truly is] a reflection of my life, which I know a lot of other people will relate to. That’s what country music is about. It’s about life, ain’t it?”

In many ways, the deeply traditional and enduring 100 Proof foreshadowed the changing tide that arrived in country music soon after. Chris Stapleton would grow to be one of the format’s biggest global superstars, Morgane Stapleton would shine as his accompanying vocalist, and neo-traditional country — which Pickler was a proud torchbearer for — would return by way of Jon Pardi, Midland, Cody Johnson, Carly Pearce, Lainey Wilson, and other similar artists. One can’t help but wonder how the record would fare today, especially in the advent of streaming and TikTok marketing — both of which were absent in 2012.

While there’s no word of a new Pickler album on the horizon, we look forward to when she eventually makes her long-overdue return to music. Yes, terrestrial radio airplay may be few and far between. But the audience and rabid fanbase she’s built over her extensive 16-year career will undoubtedly embrace her powerful voice, authenticity, and “Pick Pickler” once again.

If you missed our catch-up with Pickler last year, read it here.