This November’s Florida Seafood Festival will be the golden anniversary of the state’s oldest maritime event, so it only made sense to break tradition with the choice of the festival headliner.

The festival board this week announced that for the first time since Kathy Mattea took the stage in 1992, the Saturday night feature entertainment will be a female artist.

Kellie Pickler, who at age 26 has risen to the top of the country charts as well as the incredibly popular television show “Dancing with the Stars,” will take the stage on Nov. 2 at Battery Park.

“Her music fits the area; she likes old country,” said John Solomon, president of the all-volunteer board of directors. “She’s just a good person; she is one of those goodhearted people.”

Solomon said the festival hasn’t made a deliberate effort to only feature male stars over the past two decades, but that top-notch female acts often carry a heftier price tag.

“They’re typically more expensive because there’s less of them. When they’re popular, they’re real expensive,” he said. “We just set out to get the best we could get, that we could afford.”

In Pickler, the festival found one of the nation’s most fast-rising stars, a North Carolina-born singer-songwriter who first gained fame as a contestant on the fifth season of American Idol, went on to release three popular albums and win a slew of awards, and then topped it all off this past May by winning the 16th season of “Dancing with the Stars” with her partner Derek Hough.

Solomon said the festival is planning several enhancements to mark the 50th anniversary of the festival, including a giant fireworks show following Pickler’s concert.

The festival will be welcoming back Billy Spikes to serve as grand marshal of the Saturday morning parade, Solomon said. Spikes, who now lives in Mount Dora, served as the first president of the Florida Seafood Festival in 1963.

A large exhibit will celebrate the history of the festival’s five decades. Also, the festival has decided to rejuvenate the King Retsyo Ball, which ended a few years ago due to a lack of attendance. The traditional event will be held Friday evening at the Armory.

“A lot of board members who are younger remember their parents going,” Solomon said. “There’s been a good response so far.”


Pickler’s life ‘a classic country song’

The choice of Pickler, who turns 27 Friday, is likely to draw a large audience to the festival, particularly since she is a fast-rising young star with a vivid biography.

After her father was in and out of jail during her childhood, and her mother stayed in and out of her life, Pickler was raised by her grandparents. A cheerleader and beauty queen, she won the "Miss Stanly County" pageant at age 17 and subsequently competed for Miss North Carolina 2004.

The 19-year-old Pickler auditioned for American Idol in 2005 in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the judges sent her to Hollywood, where she advanced through the semi-final rounds. She later reached the Top 12, and was a favorite of judge Simon Cowell, who said he preferred her over the previous season's winner, Carrie Underwood.

After returning to her hometown for a parade and a reunion with her father, she received a key to the city from the mayor, who proclaimed "Kellie Pickler Day."

In 2006, she signed a record deal with 19 Recordings/BNA Records, and was part of the American Idols LIVE! Tour. Her first single, "Red High Heels’ received a nomination for the Country Music Television Video Awards for "Breakthrough Video of the Year.” Her debut album “Small Town Girl” topped Billboard's Top Country Albums and landed at number nine on the Billboard 200, making Pickler the highest-selling first-week sales for a new artist in 2006.

Pickler was nominated for "Top New Female Vocalist" for the 42nd Academy of Country Music Awards, and was one of the opening acts for Brad Paisley's "Bonfires & Amplifiers" concert tour in 2007.

In 2008, Pickler recorded her second studio album, “Kellie Pickler,” and was nominated for "Top New Female Vocalist” at the Academy of Country Music awards. The album debuted at the top of the country chart, and the song "Best Days of Your Life" became Pickler's first Top 10 hit on the Hot Country Songs chart.

In 2009,, Pickler won the title of Country Weekly's poll of most beautiful woman in country music for the second year in a row.

The song "Tough" was released in 2011 as the lead-off single to Pickler's third album, 100 Proof, which was released in early 2012. Her first single with the independent record label Black River Entertainment, “Someone Somewhere Tonight" was released in May 2013, the same month Pickler and Hough won “Dancing with the Stars.”

After two and a half years of dating, Pickler eloped to a private island in the Caribbean with songwriter Kyle Jacobs.

Pickler, a vegetarian, actively supports St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and has participated in three USO tours.