TURLOCK -- "American Idol" finalist Kellie Pickler struggled with writing songs until she realized all she had to do was speak from the heart.
"Once I started being honest in my writing and I just wrote about my life and what I was going through, it was easy then," said the North Carolina native who will perform at the Stanislaus County Fair on July 16.
"It's kind of like writing a diary. When you're writing in a diary, you write your most personal, intimate, truthful thoughts," she continued. "It's between you and your diary. Then you just pull from that and there's your song. Chances are, there are millions of other people going through the same thing."
That's what she discovered when she released her single "I Wonder," which is about her mother, whom she hasn't seen in years. She's said she's been touched by how many people relate to her story.
Once, she said, a man came up to her at a gas station when they were both pumping gas and told her he related to the song because he's adopted and wonders about his biological parents.
Pickler, who just turned 26, placed sixth in the fifth season of "American Idol," won by Taylor Hicks. Her debut album, "Small Town Girl," came out in 2006 and produced the hits "I Wonder," "Red High Heels" and "Things That Never Cross a Man's Mind."
She followed up with a self-titled release, which featured the singles "Don't You Know You're Beautiful," "Best Days of Your Life" and "Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You."
Her latest album, "100 Proof," came out in January and features traditional country music inspired by artists such as Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.
"It's my favorite record that I've made," she said.
The album hasn't been as successful as the previous two, and it was recently announced that Sony Nashville has dropped her from the label. Pickler said it was a mutual decision. She was required to record three albums as part of her contract, and she did that.
"Artists switch labels and record companies all the time," she said. "I'm really excited, actually."
She said she stays in touch with some of her fellow "American Idol" contestants, including Katharine McPhee, who was her roommate and stars in the NBC show "Smash."
"It's so great to see her doing so well," Pickler said. "I love her show; it's so good."
She also maintains contact with Mandisa, who is now a gospel singer, and Bucky Covington. But, she says, she doesn't see any of them as much as she would like. She hasn't had the time to watch recent seasons of "American Idol" religiously, but she did perform on the most recent season of the show.
She and her band plan to perform a mix of all her songs at her fair show in Turlock, as well as a few covers from some of her favorite country artists such as Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton. Pickler said she enjoys playing fairs.
"Any time I'm able to get in and sing in front of anyone, I love that," she said. "I love when we're able to go out to country towns and go to real country events. "
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. July 16
WHERE: Budweiser Variety Free Stage, Stanislaus County Fair,
900 N. Broadway, Turlock
TICKETS: Concert is free with fair admission ($12 adults, $5 seniors 65 and up and children 7-12, and free for children 6 and under).
CALL: (209) 668-1333