The first 2006 American Idol contestant out of the gates with an album is not winner Taylor Hicks or runner-up Katharine McPhee or even Web favorite Chris Daughtry: it's Kellie Pickler, the Carrie Underwood wannabe with an "aw shucks" grin and a down-home charm. Kellie certainly didn't have the greatest voice among the 2006 contestants, but she sure did have the most personality -- who else could have held their own against Wolfgang Puck in a sketch comedy, as she did on the show's season finale? -- which made her an excellent candidate to be polished and packaged into a pop star. Or, more accurately, a country-pop star, since there was no hiding the twang in Pickler's voice (something that hindered her rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," or made it more exquisite, depending on your perspective), nor was there any denying that her strongest base of support was the South, which was only natural for this North Carolina girl. Pickler always played up her country girl persona on the show, and while her antics sometimes bordered on shtick -- there's no other word for her trademark apology, "I'm saw-ree!," which was equal parts Gomer Pyle and Hee-Haw -- it did give her an identity that could be transferred to record, as it is on Small Town Girl. That title makes it crystal clear what Kellie's persona is: she's the girl next door made good, and while she may be on her way in the big city, her heart belongs back home, where she can eat cheeseburgers, not calamari, where girls like her can act like one of the guys, where wild ponies run, and where grandmothers are saints. Some of this does bear the trace of biography -- Pickler indeed is a small-town girl turned into a celebrity, her grandmother was indeed her "angel," raising the young Kellie, whose mother had run off and whose dad was in jail -- but it all plays a bit like a story invented for those fans who loved Pickler's act on AmIdol, and frankly the record is better for it. It's more fun to listen to Small Town Girl knowing the bits and pieces of Pickler's past and present, since it gives some meaning to songs that otherwise are rather formulaic. There are songs of empowerment ("Gotta Keep Moving," "I'm on My Way," "Small Town Girl"), songs that are sassy but not sexy ("One of the Guys," "Red High Heels," which rewrites Miranda Lambert's "Kerosene" by leaving out all the threats and energy), songs that are nothing more than corny jokes ("Things That Never Cross a Man's Mind"), songs that are pure sugary sentiment ("Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You," "I Wonder," "My Angel"), all fitting some aspect of Kellie's personality as seen on TV. Without that context, these songs range from moderately catchy to pleasantly forgettable, but with that outside knowledge, this is a thoroughly likeable record, almost as likeable as Kellie herself. Oh, and as for Kellie the singer? She sure makes for a great TV star, that's for sure.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine