The story Kellie Pickler told about halfway into her free unplugged set at Whiskey River Thursday was wrapped in several layers of irony. Referring to her critically lauded third album 100 Proof, the Albemarle native told the woo-hoo crowd packed in the EpiCentre club like hens in an egg factory how excited she was to have been able to finally cut a record of authentic, traditional, balls-to-the-wall country.
"They kept telling me it was too country," Pickler confided, in that sweet, rural drawl that melted a million hearts - even stony Brit Simon Cowell's - during her American Idol run. "I told 'em you could never get too country for a Carolina girl."
And then Pickler launched into a stirring acoustic version of the new record's gripping honky-tonk barnburner "Stop Cheatin' on Me" - a song taken straight out of the pages of Maria McKee's '80s L.A. punk-country band Lone Justice. In fact, "Stop Cheatin' on Me" is practically a rewrite of Lone Justice's "Don't Toss Us Away," which, even more ironically, was written by McKee's older brother Bryan MacLean, a member of the seminal West Coast garage-psychedelic band Love.
"You can't get much more country than this," Pickler said, then flashed that sparkling Colgate smile.
Ah, what a strange and convoluted world we live in.
Not that Pickler's fans minded. Nor did I. That's because, authenticity aside, Kellie Pickler is about the most refreshing and compelling female singer Nashville's witnessed since the aw-shucks smarts of June Carter, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. There's not an iota of pretense about Pickler, even when she's being about as calculated as a NASCAR driver negotiating a curve. Pickler's 100 Proof - like Lee Ann Womack's 2005 album There's More Where That Came From - consciously recreates an earlier, soft-focus era of mainstream country, from the preponderance of countrypolitan pedal steel, the retro cover design and songs with lines like "Where's Tammy Wynette when you need her?"
And yet, when Pickler - wearing a smart, tight-fitting and very '60s-vintage black top and slacks - introduced her cover of Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man" by asking the audience if they "have a problem" with straight-up traditional country, it seemed as though she just might have been testing the waters with her toes. After all, before Pickler arrived onstage, the woo-hoo crowd had been doing Jello shots, jumping around and dry-hump dancing to a DJ's mix of everything from Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" to Katy Perry's "Wake Up In Vegas" to the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started."
Pickler passed the test. The club's transition from stripper chic to old-country sweet came much more organically than it would have at, say, a hipster joint where mutton-chopped dudes playing blue-collar dress-up stroke their soul patches in "appreciation" of alt-country authenticity. No one in this crowd seemed to give a hoot about authenticity. They were, as another country firecracker put it a few years ago, here for the party. And for one glorious hour, Pickler and a trio of scruffy-headed acoustic guitar pickers stripped down her honky-tonk and pop-country - from her first hit "Red High Heels" to her latest single "Tough" - about as authentically as you can get in the fake plastic breeze of an overblown downtown strip-mall world.
Watch Pickler perform an acoustic version of "Stop Cheatin' on Me" in Portland, Or.