Kellie Pickler Kicks off a Career in Country

11/03/2006 at 05:00 PM EST

Kellie Pickler Kicks off a Career in Country
Kellie Pickler
Ted Soqui/Corbis
Hang out with Kellie Pickler long enough, and a few things are bound to happen:

1. She will gush about her biggest obsession: shoes. "There's a new brand – how do you pronounce it? Christian Loo-boo … " – Louboutin? – "Yeah! That is my favorite brand right now. I just got my first pair the other day. Black leather boots."

2. She will eat – a lot. "I like my food," she says over a lunch of fried chicken fingers, french fries and fried mozzarella sticks. "I can't eat healthy for one day."

3. She will belch, proudly and loudly. "My grandma always told me to be a lady, but I'm guessing I have not fulfilled that wish," she says.

At 20, the joke-cracking blonde with the honey-dipped drawl and the hard-grit youth is making good on plenty of other big wishes. After finishing sixth on last season's American Idol, Pickler is out to prove herself as a country singer with her debut album, Small Town Girl.

Inspired by her North Carolina roots, the album features five songs cowritten by Pickler, including the boot-scootin' first single, "Red High Heels." "She grew up in this music," says Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville. "And she brings an energy that you're just happy to be around. When you know the things she's been through, this woman has the right to be grumpy, moody, whatever. But that's never there."

As fireplug-perky in person as she was on American Idol, Pickler is also more focused and mature than her fizzy persona might suggest. "I'm only 20, but I almost feel like an old woman," she says. "I grew up fast."

Idol viewers may recall her story: Born in Albemarle, N.C., Pickler was 2 when her mother left (she later briefly regained custody of Kellie); her father, Clyde "Bo" Pickler Jr., was in and out of jail; and her grandparents, Faye and Clyde Sr., raised her.

Looking back on all of that, Pickler says the hardest thing she has had to endure was the death of her grandmother from lung cancer when Kellie was 15. "I called her Mom; she was my best friend," says Pickler. "We would always sit together on the front-porch swing. She had all these hymnals – with 'Amazing Grace' and 'Jesus Loves Me' – and I would sing to her on the swing."

Pickler cries at the memory of their final moments together. "The last thing she said to me was, 'I love you. Be careful.' "

Today she says that she and her father – who was most recently released from prison last May – "haven't really had time to catch up." Although she has no idea of her mother's whereabouts, "I think about her all the time," says Pickler. "Did she watch American Idol? How odd would it be if she had picked up the phone and voted for me?"

Says her close friend Summer Miller, who met Kellie when she was a teen pageant hopeful: "I remember asking her, 'Honey, where's your mom?' She said, 'Your guess is as good as mine.' No child should ever have to go through that."

Having just moved to Nashville – she made the drive herself in a U-Haul – Pickler is focusing on her new life. She has a boyfriend in Albemarle, but "we're more like best friends," she says. Marriage will come "maybe when I'm like 80!"

For now, she is enjoying her success. "After my grandma passed away, my dreams were all I had," she says. "I lived to accomplish them." One more she'd like to check off: pairing with her idol, Dolly Parton. "Everyone always tells me that we should do a sitcom," she says. "Kellie and Dolly: Two Blondes Out of the Bottle!"

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