It's hard for country music star Kellie Pickler to put her finger on what she misses most about her late grandmother. Whether they were whispering secrets to one another or cheering for contestants on "The Price is Right," the duo was inseparable—best friends, in fact—throughout Pickler's life until her grandmother's death nearly eight years ago. Her absence has left a hole in the singer's heart that no amount of success, awards, or top–10 hits will ever fill.
Today has been a particularly trying day for Pickler. An all-day photo shoot and a string of interviews has left the singer, known as much for her bubbly, happy-go-lucky attitude as for her remarkable voice, raspy and exhausted. But hearing a single mention of hard rock (She's a huge fan: "I loooove rock music," she gushes contagiously, in her sweet Southern drawl. "Oh, I love it.") or her beloved grandparents, and she perks right up.
The close relationship she's had with her grandparents isn't coincidental. She was raised by Clyde and Faye Pickler, her paternal grandparents, on and off throughout her life, in their hometown of Albemarle, N.C. Now 21, the singer—a finalist on season five of Fox TV's popular "American Idol" competition—is an advocate for grandparents raising grandchildren.
The Pickler family is not alone: Between 1990 and 2000, there was a 30-percent jump in the number of children living in grandparent-headed households.
Since she burst into the spotlight two years ago, Pickler—who performed at the third National GrandRally on Capitol Hill, cosponsored by AARP—has never kept her troubled childhood a secret. Instead, she's become a role model for children in non-traditional families, and now, for grandparents raising grandchildren in a world that seems to change faster every day.
"Hey everybody!" she shouts in a singsong voice—looking every bit the pop star, from her blond hair and sunglasses down to her trademark red high heels (the namesake of her first hit single "Red High Heels")—as she takes the GrandRally stage. "How we all doin' today?"
The crowd cheers as she sits down on a stool among her longtime backup musicians.
"I have been very blessed," she tells the sun-soaked sea of grandparents and grandfamilies. "God has given me so much. My grandparents are the best thing that ever happened to me."
"It's sad that you grandparents don't get the credit you deserve," she says before breaking out into song. "You guys rock!"
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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."
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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."