Kellie Pickler says she used 'American Idol' as a launchpad, but she still had to pay her dues. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
For Kellie Pickler, the end of “American Idol” was just the beginning of her career.
The bubbly blonde from Albemarle, North Carolina, was the sixth-place finisher on the fifth season of “American Idol” in 2006. But she used the show as a springboard better than most, and she launched a successful country career that has seen her release four albums, including last year’s “The Woman I Am.” Pickler, who performs Saturday at WYCD’s Downtown Hoedown, also returned to reality competitions in 2013 and took home the mirror ball trophy on the 16th season of “Dancing With the Stars.”
Following the last show of her season’s “American Idol” summer tour, “Idol’s” tour manager asked Pickler where he should book her return ticket home. “I said, ‘Send me to Nashville,’ ” Pickler says, on the phone from Nashville — where she still is. “That plane ticket was paid for, and I had everything I owned, which was a few clothes, in my suitcase.”
Pickler lived in a hotel until she could find an apartment. She had recorded songs for her debut album while on the “Idol” summer tour and was looking to maximize every opportunity she received from the show.
“After ‘American Idol’ and after the tour, a lot of people want to go take a break or go on vacation or spend time with their family, and you can’t do that. That’s not how it works. That’s not how it worked for me,” she says.
Pickler was fortunate to be on “Idol” when it was still a ratings and cultural juggernaut and before the market was diluted with other singing shows. Her season marked “Idol’s” high-water mark, both ratings-wise and culturally (her cast also included Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee and Taylor Hicks). But she says the show wasn’t a substitute for paying music industry dues, nor should it have been.
“There’s this misconception among a lot of people that once you’re on ‘Idol’ you’ve made it. You haven’t made anything yet,” says Pickler, 27. “You’re not an artist, you don’t have a record deal. You kind of develop backwards as an artist. ‘American Idol,’ just like any other singing competition show, is like a big karaoke contest. It’s no different than going to a karaoke bar and letting the audience vote by applauding who they like the best.”
Still, Pickler knew she could use the show as a launchpad, and after landing in Nashville, she nabbed an opening slot on a Brad Paisley tour. Her first single had just hit the radio, and she wasn’t sure what she had gotten herself into. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to entertain Brad Paisley’s crowd? I don’t know what I’m doing!’ ”
But she took it head on, and that got her career rolling. Her debut album, “Small Town Girl,” was released five months after her season wrapped, and her self-titled second album followed two years later.
Following the tour with Paisley, she hit the road on big tours with Sugarland, Rascall Flatts and Taylor Swift, and she has never looked back. A fear of failure, of ending up back at the Sonic drive-in where she was once a waitress, has kept her moving forward.
“I didn’t have anything to lose. I really didn’t have anything,” she says. “It was like, ‘This is your opportunity, and this opportunity might not ever come around again.’ One of my greatest fears growing up and still today is having ‘What if’ questions. What if I would have done this? What if I would have worked a little bit harder? I couldn’t risk that. I knew I would do whatever it takes — within reason — to make this happen.”
6:15 p.m. Saturday, Main Stage
Comerica Park parking lot
Tickets $50/weekend, $29.50/daily