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I missed my grandma terribly—but singing brought her back to me.
They say the best songs—especially the best country songs—come from the heart. I'm here to tell you that's true, and then some. Last year I was a contestant on TV's American Idol. Competing against thousands of singers, I made it to the top six before being voted off, and was grateful to have come so far.
Right away offers came in from big Nashville songwriters to write material for me. I was flattered, but in the end I figured I had to try telling my own story my own way. After all, country singing is about life. Real life. And who's going to be better at talking about my life than me?
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Country songs are also about heartaches, and I've had my share of those. Most folks know by now that I had some tough times as a kid. My mom took off when I was two. My dad was in and out of jail. Neither one of them gave me much to write inspiring songs about.
That job was left to someone else. A lady named Faye Pickler. My grandmother. I dedicated my first album, Small Town Girl, to her. The last song on the album, "My Angel," tells the whole story.
There's an old dirt driveway I mention in that song. It ran straight from the main road to the front door of Grandma and Grandpa's house. Grandma had an easy chair that looked out the big front window, and her view went straight to the street. Whoever was coming, she could see from a long way off.
Grandma could see a lot of other things coming too. Like what I was heading for in life. My dad's house was right across the way, just a big field between the two, with a path running through it. After Mom took off and Dad's troubles got worse, I got to know that path pretty well.
Seemed I was running toward Grandma's more often than heading home. Life was confusing back then, and I didn't ever know what to expect from one minute to the next.
By the time I started school, I was living with Grandma and Grandpa full-time. There was a little shelf of kids' books right inside their door. My favorite was a songbook full of hymns. Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me, all those old favorites.
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Grandma and I would sit together on the porch with that book in our laps and sing our way right through it. I got lost in those songs. If I was feeling sad, mixed-up or scared before we started, by the time we were a couple bars in, my troubles took a backseat.
There was a power at work in those songs that you can't put words to—that you just feel in your bones. I knew Grandma felt it too. Grandma used those times to help me build up my confidence—something any child from a broken family can always use a little extra of.
Every day when I got off the school bus, there was one thing I could count on: Grandma. She was at the end of that old dirt driveway, waiting just for me. Year in and year out. No matter what.
When I stepped off that bus I knew I'd see her—either looking out from the big picture window or, if the weather was warm, standing in the front yard. She was always there.
Grandma had had a rough life herself. You know the expression "dirt poor"? Well, that was my grandparents. They were teenage sweethearts. They knew from the moment they met that they were going to get married, but they weren't looking at a whole lot of options in life.
Grandpa quit school real young when he got tired of being teased for wearing the same clothes everyday. He couldn't even read till Grandma taught him. He got his GED thanks to her, and later on his electrical license.
Grandma knew how important it was to have someone rooting for you—someone who believed in you 100 percent. And she believed in me every bit as much as she believed in Grandpa.