Originally published in the February 15, 2016 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Looking to prove himself—and have some fun—Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley turns down an unknown road for his solo debut, The Driver.
Charles Kelley predicted what people would say when he announced a solo project following Lady Antebellum’s hiatus—that this was his plan all along. And even though his bandmates each have pet projects of their own—Hillary Scott is recording a family gospel album and Dave Haywood is producing a new act—he was right.
“I wanted to be like, ‘We all decided to do this. Hillary is working on something, Dave is working on something,’ but they hadn’t announced their projects yet so I wanted to be respectful of that,” Charles says. “I think maybe in the beginning everybody thought this was just an ego project on my end, and it was like, ‘No, we all collectively said we’re gonna take some time off.’”
The Driver, his debut album as a solo artist, may not be entirely motivated by ego, but Charles does want to prove himself apart from the band. His project was never designed to be the first step in a brand-new career, but what was originally a five-song, no-pressure EP—paid for out of pocket—grew into the nine tracks of The Driver.
Charles co-wrote four songs himself and dug deep into a well of outside songs set aside over the years, favorites of his that the band opted not to cut. With a sound that feels squarely at the crest of the pop-country curve, he sings about topics like arrogant sex appeal and Music City failure, reimagines a tasty Tom Petty album cut and enlists the help of guest stars Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Eric Paslay and rock icon Stevie Nicks. And so far, Charles is happy with the response. After a rethought approach, a club tour is underway and the project’s debut single, also called “The Driver” (featuring Dierks and Eric), copped a Grammy nomination for Best Duo/Group Country Performance.
But as Charles folds his lanky Georgian frame onto a leather couch in his PR firm’s downtown Nashville office, one thing becomes clear above all else—he’s mostly just happy he got the chance to do it.
“It’s finally here,” he says with a relieved smile. “We’ve had this music for a while, but we didn’t even know if we were gonna put it out or anything.”
Charles says that all along, his bandmates had been on the same page. Their hiatus wasn’t because they felt like their popularity was slipping, and it wasn’t because their friendship had begun to suffer. It was because they were burning out.
“We needed this break,” Charles admits. “We needed to honestly check out for a little bit and get off the hamster wheel of what Lady Antebellum is. It’s such a huge machine and there’s so much expectation that we almost got caught up in the pressure of it. We started—every now and then—putting out a song that we didn’t 100 percent believe in, and I don’t want to do that anymore. . . . We’ve definitely had some songs that we believed in so much that didn’t do what we thought they were gonna do, and some silly ones that worked hugely, and sometimes you can get a little jaded by that—like, ‘I don’t even know what people want from us anymore, or where our spot is.’”
Over the course of a few extremely honest conversations, it became clear that some time away was in order. Each member was delighted for the chance to pursue something new, but it just happened to be Charles who made the first move. He enlisted Lady A producer Paul Worley and began recording songs just for the fun of it, with absolutely no intention of aiming for radio hits. “I tried not to overthink it,” says Charles, who eventually found a groove and an identity away from the band. That was hard to come to terms with at first, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot has changed. He still thinks of himself as the same guy.
“It’s just a different thing,” Charles says. “I’ve always been a pretty Type A personality throughout the band’s history, so I’ve never really done anything I didn’t want to do, but I’ve also had to compromise. You have to be democratic when it comes to [being in a band.] Like with a song like ‘Lonely Girl’—I’ve been wanting to cut that song for three years but it never quite fit the band or I couldn’t get the other two on board, so this is my chance. There is a little freedom in that. With Lady A I’m a part of the whole, but this is my story.”
The album does find Charles making choices he never could with Lady A. Lyrically and musically, he was determined to go beyond “your standard hit-song kind of thing.” With that in mind, “The Driver”—quiet, reverential and focused on life’s bigger picture—was the perfect way to introduce his new project.
“‘The Driver’ is [in a style] that I haven’t heard on country radio for a while,” he explains. The Grammy-nominated slow jam is notable for its guest stars, Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay, but also for the return of what originally endeared many Lady A fans to the band in the first place.
“I noticed that my voice had gotten a little prettier as time went on, and I don’t know what that was from,” he admits. “Maybe trying to become more of a mass-appeal band. But I wanted to get back to that gritty, Bob Seger kind of thing that I started out with on ‘Love Don’t Live Here.’ That song has been like this albatross that I’ve always been trying to chase, because that’s the kind of music I love. So I tried to get back to that on this record.”
The opening track, “Your Love,” really does feel like it shares its musical DNA with “Love Don’t Live Here.” Meanwhile, “Lonely Girl”—the arrogant sex-appeal song—drapes Charles’ newly restored vocal grit in strutting new-school R&B. For “Southern Accents”—the Tom Petty cover Charles always thought would make a great country tune—he duets with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks. Miranda sings a devastatingly honest harmony part on the road-weary “I Wish You Were Here,” and “Leaving Nashville” strips away some of the glitz of country stardom to reveal its true plot line: Mostly valleys with a few peaks scattered in, if you’re lucky.
Charles is quick to point out that Lady A has been privileged in that department—they’ve basically always been a success. But that comes with its own drawbacks and obligations. In 2011, the band won five Grammys for the massive crossover hit “Need You Now.”
“We had one of the high of highs of our career with the Grammy night, and in the back of our minds we always knew it would be really hard to reach that level of success ever again,” he says.
With The Driver, Charles gets a chance to open a release valve on some of that pressure, recharge for the next Lady A album and get back to the fun side of making music. Ultimately, he thinks the band will be stronger for the adventure, but until then, he feels like he’s accomplished something already.
“It was definitely a realization that I am starting over from scratch with this project,” he says. “It’s taken a little while for people to connect the dots between Charles Kelley and this guy from Lady Antebellum. . . . And it’s been kinda humbling in a good way, all of it. I’ve always kind of known, because when people come up to me in the airport, they’re like, ‘You’re that guy from Lady Antebellum.’ They don’t necessarily say, ‘You’re Charles Kelley.’ This is what I wanted, though—to try to prove myself.” NCW
With his first child—a baby boy—due in February, Charles has a lot more on his mind than his solo debut.
His favorite piece of advice: “Everyone says you think you know what love is, but you don’t really until you meet this little person. I’m obsessed with my wife—we’re always laughing that we only like to hang out with each other. I told her I can already tell with the way she’s nesting and the way she talks to him even though he’s not here yet, I’m like, ‘You’re gonna be so obsessed with this little boy that I’m gonna be old news.’ And I can already see myself coming off the road and being so excited to see my wife, but I’m gonna be even more excited to see this little dude.”
His biggest fear: “Lack of sleep and losing my voice from lack of sleep. I get so anxious when I don’t sleep enough because I always lose my voice or get sick when I’m run down. I’m nervous about that. Your voice is not like picking up a guitar. You’ve gotta make sure it works.”
What being a dad means to him: “Living for something bigger than you, and also the culmination of a tough couple of years of trying. Maybe the result of determination. I think we’re going to appreciate it that much more because of [the struggle to conceive].
Every Driver Needs a Crew
Scoring an industry-voted Grammy nomination with his debut single as a solo artist (ironically, for Best Duo/Group Performance with Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay on “The Driver”) means Charles has the support of his peers. And that means the world to him.
“It’s weird—you can have all the commercial success in the world, but nothing as an artist means more than when your peers are patting you on the back for something,” he explains. “It’s definitely gratifying in a different way, and it’s maybe what I was chasing if I want to be honest with myself. Some people on the outside might think I’m doing this for the spotlight, and that’s not really what this is about. I know I’m not gonna get the same spotlight Lady A got, but it already feels like success.”