WASHINGTON — Their latest hit single “You Look Good” is burning up the country charts with a funky beat, a catchy hook and a rare horn section the likes of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
“We’re always trying to do something different,” said founder Charles Kelley. “We were listening to what we had and were like, ‘Man, it really needs something. Let’s try a horn section.’ … Our genre is so wide open with so many different sounds right now. … It’s been fun to have a song like that with a live show. It’s brought a whole new energy to our live show.”
That energy includes rising-star opening acts Kelsea Ballerini, who just earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist with her hit single “Peter Pan” (2016), and Brett Young, who topped the charts with “Sleep Without You” (2016) and “In Case You Didn’t Know” (2017).
“We always try to bring people out on the road that have a lot of buzz and will set the tone for the night,” Kelley said. “We hit the lottery with Brett Young. We locked him in when he had one song on the radio, ‘Sleep Without You,’ then all of a sudden ‘In Case You Didn’t Know’ just blew up. And of course, Kelsea Ballerini, she’s a rock star. … I tell them to soak up these moments, because we’ve been a band for 10 years and you never get those same first-time butterflies.”
Kelley remembers what it was like being a hungry young musician. Growing up in the 1980s in Augusta, Georgia, he cut his teeth playing music with his brother Josh (future pop star married to Katherine Heigl) and classmate Dave Haywood (future co-founder of Lady Antebellum).
“We went to the same middle school, high school and even went to the same college together,” Kelley said. “I can’t say we were super, super close buddies, but we played in different bands and always had a mutual respect for each other when it came to music.”
After college, he worked a year in construction before deciding to try his hand in Nashville.
“I called Dave up, ‘Hey man, if you ever want to give this a chance, now’s the time,'” Kelley said. “‘We can live at my brother’s house for free. There’s an extra bed you can stay in. Let’s just see what can happen.’ All the sudden, we meet Hillary and six months later we had a record deal.”
He’ll never forget meeting Hillary Scott. At the time, Kelley and Haywood were trying to get a publishing deal as songwriters. Little did they know that a powerful trio was about to be born.
“I was out at the bar and Hillary … hopped off stage and recognized me,” Kelley said. “She said, ‘Hey, you’re Josh Kelley’s brother, right? I’ve heard some of your stuff on MySpace! You’re pretty good.’ … I said, ‘Well, I’d love to write a song with you.’ So, she comes over the next week and, in the first month, we wrote four songs that ended up being on our first record.”
That record was the 2007 self-titled debut album for Capitol Nashville, featuring their first radio hit “Love Don’t Live Here” and their first Grammy-winning song “I Run to You.”
“‘Run to You’ was the first time we wrote with Tom Douglas [‘House Who Built Me’],” Kelley said. “He had all these lyrics written but didn’t have a song or a melody. So we just poached different lines; Hillary, Dave and I came up with the chorus [and] pulled 90 percent of the lyrics from this poem he had. To this day, it’s lyrically my favorite song we’ve ever written.”
Still, nothing could have prepared Lady A for the success of their next album, “Need You Now” (2009). It featured three No. 1 hits, “American Honey,” “Our Kind of Love” and the seminal title track, a crossover smash winning Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammys. With its painful lyrics and piano teardrops, it became an instant all-timer in country history.
“I appreciate it more now, being in the business and realizing that was a once-in-a-lifetime song,” Kelley said. “We feel like we’ve still got another big ‘Need You Now’ in our [future]. We’ve had success with different songs, but you just can’t compare it to the same bar as ‘Need You Now.’ It just took on a life of its own. It’s always the song of the night in the show.”
The success continued with their third album “Own the Night” (2011), including the hits “Just a Kiss,” “We Owned the Night” and “Dancin’ Away with My Heart.” Their fourth studio album “Golden” (2013) delivered the gems “Downtown” and “Compass,” while their fifth album “747” (2014) cemented Lady A as one of country’s most prolific acts with the No. 1 hit “Bartender.”
“We wrote [‘Bartender]’ on the road,” Kelley said. “We thought of this idea, Dave and I, on our bus with [songwriter Rodney Clawson]. We called up Hillary: ‘Pull over to the gas station! You gotta come on the bus and work on this.’ It really poured itself out. We had this idea of ‘Hey, Bartender,’ but it was Hillary’s idea to turn it into a female anthem of getting over your ex.”
That feminist message will continue with the title track of their sixth album, “Heart Break.”
“We’re super proud of this record,” Kelley said. “Once ‘You Look Good’ does its thing, I can’t wait for everybody to hear the second single, ‘Heart Break.’ It’s a female empowerment song, probably our favorite song off the record. It’s a play on ‘heartbreak,’ giving your heart a break. It’s actually a positive song, we threw a little twist on there. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”
After that, Lady Antebellum is about to go global, expanding a once-niche genre to the world.
“Country music has grown so much, bringing in influences from other genres, which is just natural because we have access to so much music now,” Kelley said. “People are coming to country music to hear the lyrics and the authenticity. We’re actually going over to the U.K. and then to South Africa for the first time in October, so we’re trying to take it around the world.”
Click here for more details on the concert. Listen to our full conversation with Charles Kelley below: