Albemarle, N.C. (pop. 16,000), is a city in the rolling hills of North Carolina's Piedmont, about 45 miles east of Charlotte. Textile was its lifeblood until most of the mills shut down in the '80s and '90s. The local economy now relies on light manufacturing, some agriculture and the service industries.
Its quaint downtown is undergoing a slow revival, but nothing has injected it with energy like the "Pickler Party" scene on Tuesday nights. Restaurants pack in customers with broadcasts of American Idol. Police block off First Street, where the local phone company, CT Communications, sets up a 27-foot inflatable screen to watch the show and a text-messaging booth to vote (last week fans sent more than 8,500 text message votes for Pickler). Tuesday's episode drew about 200 people to the street scene, where vendors also sell ice cream, $10 Kellie T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs. Radio stations bring their vans and interview people in the crowd.
J.D. Shuckers Restaurant and Sports Theater on First Street next to the outdoor gathering is the busiest place in town. Housed in a building that was once the hardware store, Shuckers opened in August Albemarle was a dry town, brown-bagging only in restaurants until 1998 and has ridden the Kellie wave to success. On Tuesday nights it is packed with fans watching American Idol on its 14 flat-screen and four projection-screen TVs, tuned to sports channels on any other occasion. It's so packed that the fire marshal comes by every Tuesday to make sure the bar doesn't exceed its 225-person limit.
"Every Tuesday night since she made it to Hollywood, we're full up," said bar manager Jaime Bowles, 27, of nearby Northwood, a hustling blur as the patrons stand three deep waiting for drinks (Bud Light and Miller Lite are the biggest sellers). "Hopefully, she'll be singing last."
In the crowd this week was Alyson Lynch, 15, of St. Marys, Penn., wearing an oversize pink bow in her hair in honor of Kellie. She is such a big fan that the family made a detour heading home from an Orlando vacation to spend the night in Albemarle. They took pictures of the Sonic drive-in where Kellie was a roller-skating waitress for three years, then they came to the street party. At Shuckers, they met Jean Burris (girlfriend of Kellie's grandfather Clyde Pickler; Clyde was in Hollywood for the show), who had been tipped off by the gang at Sonic that the family was in town and grooving big time on the experience. Burris, now a local celebrity, chatted them up and introduced them to Kellie's maternal grandfather, Ken Morton of Fayetteville, N.C., who had also come over for the show. Morton was eating steak and sat with the family for a while telling tales of Kellie. To Alyson, it was like going to London and meeting the royal family.
"Mom said she should try the lottery today, because we're cooking!" said Alyson, a ninth-grader at Elk County Catholic High School in St. Marys.
"It's wild but it's wonderful," said Burris of Kellie amid the clamor of Shuckers. "That girl has so much support." Burris said Kellie has told her the contestants work 17-hour days. "All of them are worn out."
"It's the biggest thing that's happened here I can remember," said Daniel Hudson, 30, of Albemarle, Burris' son-in-law, who has worked for Clyde Pickler as an electrician since November. "It gets bigger and bigger each week."
His wife, Sherry Hudson, 33, in a "Pick Pickler" T-shirt, says that Kellie is as natural on the show as she is in real life. No pretenses, no dumb-blonde act. "We say salmon," she said, emphasizing the l that goes unspoken other places. As for calamari, the squid dish that surprised Kellie in Hollywood, "They have it in the restaurants here, but I'm not going to try it if they give it to me."
Ken Morton, the maternal grandfather, goes by "Grandpa Ken" and likes to go shopping with his granddaughter in Charlotte. He suggested she try out for American Idol last year. "She said, 'I don't think I'm that good'," he recalled, "'but I'll try it if you'll go with me." He accompanied her to the Greensboro auditions last fall, where Kellie was ready to quit because there were so many people. "She said, 'Let's go home and forget this,' and I said, 'Naw, let's stick around. If you don't like it, we'll leave later,'" Morton said. She stuck it out and made it.
On her personality, he notes, "Kellie is Kellie. That's her. Albemarle is a small town."
Morton admitted he's not exactly worldly either. "When Simon said 'You're a minx,' I was ready to run out to California and whup him. I didn't know what it was, either."
Debbie Marshall, 51, lifelong resident and Buick salesman explains Kellie's hanky thus: "We all call it a snot rag. That's what it is. You go to a funeral and it's like, 'You got a snot rag?' People who don't have one, what do they do? Use their sleeves?"
At the Purple Pinkie Salon, Kellie is Topic No. 1. "That's the entire conversation all day who's your favorite, how do you think Kellie is going to do," said Shanna Simpson, 28, who runs the salon with her sister Stacy Lee, 34, also of Albemarle. Though Stacy doesn't know Kellie personally, she's been served by her at Sonic.
Assessing the impact Kellie's Idol run has had on the town, Simpson said, "It's really brought everyone together. And it's really put us on the map. We have a customer who just went to England and people there knew about Albemarle" because of American Idol. Downtown used to be dead at 5 pm, and now it's hopping on Tuesday nights. "This is totally amazing compared to what we usually have here," said Lee.
The next biggest thing in local memory is the Albemarle High School Bulldogs, who won consecutive state football championships from 2001 to 2003, according to Ben Jolly, 36, a lifelong resident who works in marketing at the local medical center.
The mayor of Albemarle himself, Elbert L. "Whit" Whitley Jr., 72, had this to say about Kellie's success: "It's probably the nicest thing that's happened [here] in a long time. You see excitement in all the people here. And she's been a great ambassador for Albemarle." Whitley hoped Kellie would make the final three and get a chance to come home for the traditional "homecoming" episode and maybe perform. He estimates they'd get 20,000 people in town for that.
On hand for one street party: Madison Dill, 10, knows Kellie as her former baby-sitter. The two text-messaged each other a lot, though not quite as often during the final weeks of Kellie's run. But Dill isn't feeling snubbed. As the preteen shared, "Kellie promised when she gets home, we'll just have a girls' day."