By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Country singer Kellie Pickler recorded her new album, "100 Proof," as if it would be her last.
That's a strong statement for an entertainer who has produced a string of country hits, including "Red High Heels" and a song she wrote for the mother she never knew, "I Wonder."
Pickler's new album, released on Tuesday this week, is a much more traditional recording for the singer, who said she grew up listening to and loving Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.
When Pickler came to Nashville from the small town of Albemarle, North Carolina, she expected to record the kind of music her heroes were making. Instead, she was grouped with the new generation of singers whose work was more contemporary.
She and Taylor Swift became friends and wrote together, resulting in one of her biggest hits, "The Best Days of Your Life."
But after being one of the runners-up on Fox's "American Idol" TV show in 2006 and recording two successful albums, she didn't feel she was being true to herself. Her latest album, however, is "100 proof" Pickler.
"I didn't try to please anyone but myself. I didn't think 'will radio play this?' or 'will people buy this?'" she said.
"I'm at an age and place in my life where I care, but I don't care enough to compromise who I am anymore. I'm just gonna sing and I'm gonna say what I want to say," the 25-year-old told Reuters.
"It's okay to be selfish every now and then. Making this record, I made myself happy. That's not to say that I'm not happy with the things I did in the past. But I'm even happier now that I got to go in and do what I wanted to do."
The first song Pickler recorded was "Stop Cheatin' On Me."
"My producer sent me the work tape and I listened to it and thought, 'Damn that sounds like a country song to me.' There is honesty in the lyrics. It's very real," she said.
The first single from the album, "Tough," was written for her by Leslie Satcher. When Pickler first met the songwriter, she asked for tunes that no one else had recorded, saying the songs other writers pitched to her did not feel right.
"So she asked me, 'Well, who is Kellie?' It was so easy to open up to her, so I told her about my life and some personal things that I'd never shared with anyone. She went home and locked herself in a room and wrote this song, taking what I had told her," Pickler said.
Satcher also wrote "Where's Tammy Wynette," which kicks off the album and opens with the sure-fire country lyric: "I stay torn between killin' him and lovin' him."
Pickler composed songs with one of her songwriter heroes, Dean Dillon, including the tunes "Long as I Never See You Again" and "The Letter (To Daddy)."
"I'm a huge fan of Dean," Pickler said, pausing to sing a few lines of a Vern Gosdin hit that Dillon wrote, "Set 'em up Joe." Dillon is one of Nashville's most prolific writers, having written mega-hits for George Strait including "The Chair" and the song that headlines his most recent No. 1 album, "Here for a Good Time."
"I never thought in a million years he'd sit in a room and write with little ol' me. We wrote several songs with Dale Dodson, and what a fun session that was," she said.
Her song "The Letter (To Daddy)" was initially not meant to be heard publicly as it touches on the heartbreak Pickler felt as a little girl while her father struggled with alcohol.
"We wrote it so I could get what was in here (touches her heart) out on paper," Pickler said. "But when I played it for a few friends they told me I had to record it."
"I love this album," Pickler said, adding she is anxious to find out if fans will too. "I've never been more proud of anything I've worked on. I fell in love with country music all over again while I was making this record."
(Reporting By Vernell Hackett; Editing by Andrew Stern and Bob Tourtellotte)