After her parents split when Pickler was just two years old, her mother promptly left her in the care of her alcoholic father, Clyde "Bo" Pickler. When he was drinking, doing drugs, or serving a stint in prison, she lived with her grandparents.
"It was the most stability I ever had," she says, thinking back to her many years in their care. "It was really hard for them, because most elderly people, they've already raised kids, they're ready to retire, and they only draw a certain amount of income per year. My grandmother wasn't able to work. She was disabled [with severe rheumatoid arthritis and gout]. She just wasn't very healthy. Medical bills and prescription drugs and the house and utilities and– everything adds up. My grandpa never really officially got to retire. He had to work jobs on the side. But I never had to do without."
Money may have been tight while Pickler was growing up in her multigenerational family, but despite their age difference, something they never lacked was understanding.
Generation gaps are hard enough to navigate for parents and children. Add a couple, or even three decades to that, and miscommunication—be it over a risqué myspace page, dating, grades, or text-messaging at the dinner table—can run rampant. Pickler's' tried-and-true advice to beat even the deepest generation gaps comes down to a single word: communication.
"I think that's the most important thing—to know that you can talk about anything," she says with certainty. "I knew I could go to my grandma with anything in the world. Whether I'd done something bad or good or whatever, I could go and tell her. I think it's about having that friendship."
"It's important that you have a solid relationship," she continues. "My grandma was my best friend, and I think it's all about having that communication with each other to understand what the other's going through. I know it was a little bit of a struggle for my grandparents. Because they wanted me to be happy, but still, they wanted me to be good. We always had a line of communication. You have to so you know what the other one's thinking and going through with their feelings."
Pickler may be racking up awards (she won more than any single artist at this year's Country Music Television Awards for her debut album, Small Town Girl) and writing hit songs, but that doesn't stop Clyde Sr. from doling out grandfatherly advice.
"My grandpa, every time I talk to him, he still tells me when I get off the phone with him, he's like– " she stops to catch her breath from laughter, playfully deepening her voice to imitate him, "'Be a good girl. Be good.'"
And she is good. The vivacious blond admits she was never a problem child. In high school, she threw herself into activities like cheerleading, dance, and theater, but music always prevailed over everything else. She grew up wanting to be the next Dolly Parton, and her grandparents continuously supported her dreams.
The young performer's biggest blow came during her sophomore year of high school, when her grandmother died. And while Faye Pickler wasn't here to cheer her granddaughter on during her American Idol performances, the Southern diva's sure her grandmother's looking down fondly upon her success.
"I think she'd just be happy that I kind of broke the cycle in my family," she says. "She'd just be happy that I'm happy. She'd be proud."
Pickler may have finally met her idol—"Dolly," as she calls her—and she may live in Nashville, the sparkling home of country music, but the small-town girl hasn't forgotten her roots or close-knit family. She paid homage to her grandmother by not only dedicating the album to her, but also by closing the record with a song, "My Angel," which Pickler wrote especially for Faye.
"I called her ‘Mom.' She was my best friend," she tells the crowd of her beloved grandmother. "I feel like she's still walking with me. She's my angel."
"You were like my mother/You were my best friend," she sings, the Capitol dome rising behind her. "You were everything I want to be/And all the good inside of me/There's never been/Never been another/That loved me like you did/My grandmother, my angel."
In a country where newer is almost always better, Pickler says she feels senior citizens are underappreciated—grandparents in particular. Her grandmother was the biggest influence on her life; "the glue that held us together," is how she describes her grandmother's relationship with the extended family. "After she passed away, everybody kind of went their own direction."
She may be all grown up, but it's the tender memory of her grandparents' home that keeps her grounded and warmhearted as she jet-sets around the world. Looking back, she sees it wasn't the things she grew up doing with her grandparents, but the time they spent together.
"I was a normal kid," she says of her childhood. "We just spent quality time together. We didn't necessarily have to be going anywhere. Because if you're in good company, you could be doing anything in the world or nothing at all."
* * *
When she gets off stage, the country star is swamped by fans, cameras snapping, and Sharpies waving wildly for her autograph. She takes time to pose with every grandchild, grandparent, and passerby, signing photos, notebooks, and even business cards.
On the way back to her car, she reflects on the afternoon. "It's one of the most amazing things I've ever done," she says of the rally. "I can completely relate to all the grandparents and the grandkids. I've seen all the struggles and the challenges that my grandparents went through when they were raising me. It's tough. It can be hard. It's nice to know that AARP is here to help and to give as much as they can."
"It's amazing that the grandparents are taking the initiative to get involved in their grandkids' lives," Pickler says. "If the parents aren't suitable parents, then it's great that the grandparents can get in and take control and provide a loving home for them."
As for those red high-heeled shoes, walking on the cushy grass of Capitol Hill isn't easy, she admits. So how does she do it?
"Very carefully," she jokes as she makes her way across the lawn to a car waiting to whoosh her off to the airport. "I put all my weight on the balls of my feet. On my toes," she says with a laugh. "I walk on my toes."