It was the singer’s first CMA performance and, dressed in a gorgeous strapless red gown, a glamorous Pickler seemed transformed from the calamari-clueless American Idol alum who came onto the country scene just a year before.
“Growing up watching the CMAs as a girl and seeing all of my favorite country music singers up there, it was such an unbelievable experience to share that same stage with them, the people who I grew up watching perform,” Pickler tells PEOPLE in the new special issue, 50 Years of the CMA Awards. “I looked down and George Strait was sitting in the front row and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was such a beautiful moment for my soul and my heart.”
But it was also one of the toughest performances of the then 21-year-old’s life. Not long before the show, Pickler had decided to stop taking anti-depressant drugs, which left her “an emotional rollercoaster wreck.” Then, just moments before she took the CMA stage, she learned that her estranged mother, who had abandoned her when she was 2 and hadn’t seen her in 12 years, had been on TV talking about her.
“At that time I felt like, ‘Tonight I’m good enough?'” Pickler told PEOPLE in 2008. “Why would she come out and ruin this special night? This is supposed to be one of the most magical nights of my life. And I worked hard for it.”
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Pickler’s hands were shaking throughout the song. “I remember grabbing the microphone with both hands because I could see my hand shaking out of the corner of my eyes and I was like, ‘Maybe if I just hold the mike with both hands people can’t tell,'” she said.
She almost made it through the song flawlessly, but tears began streaming down her face as she sang her last lines, and she was forced to speak the final words, “I’m in Tennessee,” through sobs. The crowd burst into cheers and gave her a spontaneous standing ovation.
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Nearly 10 years later, Pickler, now married to songwriter Kyle Jacobs, with whom she stars in CMT’s reality comedy, I Love Kellie Pickler, can look back at the moment with pride.
“I was very blessed to be able to perform on that stage and be in that room,” she says. “And that particular song on that particular stage was a moment I’ll never forget.”