“You look so pretty!” cries Kellie Pickler to Julianne Hough, as Taylor Swift bounces in with both serious and silly birthday gifts for Pickler (Jo Malone perfume—and pepper spray: “I don’t have many friends, so I need to protect the ones I have!” exclaims Swift). Soon after, flowers arrive for Swift with a note from an admirer. “Ooh,” Pickler and Hough tease. Swift, who’s been quietly seeing Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, blushes, and the three laugh.
This giggling trio are more than friends sharing secrets; they represent country’s new generation. Swift, 18, is the powerhouse teen: Her debut went triple-platinum, and her next album is due in November. American Idol sweetheart Pickler, 22, follows her gold debut with a Sept. 30 album. And Hough, 20, a two-time Dancing with the Stars champ who’s paired with Hannah Montana‘s Cody Linley this season, took No. 1 on the country chart with her May debut.
Together, they’ll host ABC’s CMA Music Festival Special, airing Sept. 8. The country cuties—who are all in relationships (Hough with country singer Chuck Wicks and Pickler with songwriter Kyle Jacobs)—gabbed with PEOPLE by a lake near Nashville.
Why are there so many blondes in country music?
PICKLER: [laughing] There are a lot of us, aren’t there?
SWIFT: There are! I can’t put my finger on why.
Are you competitive with each other?
HOUGH: We’re all distinctive, but we’re about the same age, pursuing dreams, so we have a lot to talk about. On [our tour buses], each of us is the only girl, so girls got to stick together!
What do you admire in each other?
HOUGH: Kellie’s sweet and feminine. She’s just all woman and her voice is pure. And Taylor has that relatability factor—she’s not afraid to bash on a guy who’s hurt her, and her fans go through the same things.
SWIFT: Julianne is awesome. She’s always laughing.
PICKLER: And she has the most rockin’ body too!
Who’s the biggest risk taker?
PICKLER: I am a daredevil. I really want to get a motorcycle.
SWIFT: You’d look cute on a motorcycle. But you need to be careful—it’s dangerous.
Julianne is a newcomer to Nashville. What advice would you give her?
PICKLER: It’s a lot of fun. Everyone here is in the music business.
SWIFT: It’s very welcoming. She’ll fit in great! We first saw her [here] at a Christmas party.
HOUGH: I walked in and it was hilarious—they were sitting at a kiddie table!
Why do you love Nashville?
HOUGH: It’s so relaxed. I went to Walgreens this morning in pj bottoms and no makeup. You could do that in L.A.—but you’d feel crappy about it. Everyone there is all dolled up.
How does fame affect dating?
HOUGH: It’s difficult. I got lucky.
PICKLER: It’s important to find someone confident, who can understand that our work is time-consuming.
SWIFT: Our schedules are a challenge. But we haven’t changed. The way people look at us has, but we haven’t.
What do you look for in a guy?
PICKLER: Someone who’s not [needy]!
SWIFT: Someone who’s not on the phone bringing you down or nagging.
HOUGH: Someone who has their own ambitions and career. I’m kind of the guy in relationships, and it’s a turn-on when you don’t have someone clinging to you.
Which couples do you admire?
PICKLER: Martina McBride and her husband, John. Her family comes first.
What’s the best relationship advice you’ve given each other?
SWIFT: Kellie is brutal with guys!
PICKLER: I am tough on them. You can’t be with a guy who puts you down. You need a man who supports you and wants you to do well. Taylor can learn from my mistakes.
Taylor and Kellie, why are you such close pals?
SWIFT: I’m so impressed by all the things Kellie has risen above in life. She’s the older sister I never had. My mom looks at her as another daughter. It’s a family thing at this point.
PICKLER: We complete each other. Taylor is the sane one. She makes me want to be a better person. Her family took care of me on the road last year [they both toured with Brad Paisley]. Her mom is Mama Swift to me.
SWIFT: It’s really cool having friends in the business. It’s like being friends with coworkers.
What’s hang-out time like?
PICKLER: Julianne and I did a show together recently, and afterwards we got into our pj’s and had a girls’ night on the bus.
HOUGH: We didn’t talk about music; we didn’t talk about Dancing with the Stars; we didn’t talk about American Idol. I introduced her to Sour Patch Kids, and we just talked makeup, hair and boys.
SWIFT: Kellie and I do pedicures a lot. And we spent New Year’s Eve together, watching me and Carrie Underwood on Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year’s Eve and making a cake.
PICKLER: I’m telling you, when I’m around Taylor, I’m not getting into trouble!