It is a familiar posture: the popular musician who heroically resists the demands of mainstream popularity, aiming instead for loftier notions of statement making, authenticity flaunting, muse following and the like. Yet country acts tend to avoid such passion projects, at least until they've aged out of competing for radio hits and are repositioning themselves, perhaps as emboldened individualists or intrepid interpreters of musical traditions they hold dear. (Hence Alan Jackson's back-to-the-roots bluegrass album, Lee Ann Womack adding edge to her melancholy with stark, roots-country settings and Wynonna Judd fronting a stylishly rugged, southern soul-inflected band.)
You wouldn't expect to see a mid-career striver like Charles Kelley venturing into such serious-minded territory. His trio Lady Antebellum — in which he splits vocal duties with Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood — piled up pop-country triumphs in the late 'Aughts and early 2010s. And though the group's chart success has slowed in recent years, it was still regularly scoring Top 10 hits and headlining arenas right up into 2015. Its commercial success is hardly ancient history.
Even so, Kelley's using an opening in his schedule to put out a solo album, entitled The Driver, whose approach lands midway between singer-songwriter reflection, blue-eyed soul grit and '70s AOR studio finesse. It's polished yet immensely supple, a collection with room for his rousing mythologies of music's pull, patient seduction and autobiographical confessions.
Watch and listen to the premiere of a stripped-down version of the ballad Kelley wrote for his wife, "Only One Who Gets Me," and recorded for 1 Mic 1 Take. Kelley also talked with NPR Music about what he's up to in that song and the album it's a part of, The Driver.
In just about every interview you've done to date, you've made it clear that The Driver isn't meant to signal the end of Lady Antebellum, and that the album is a musical detour that you took for the art of it. What does that mean to you — to make music for the sake of art?
It's very freeing. My wife kind of laughed at me, because I've got this project and I'm like, "I don't care what happens. I've just got to get it out of my system." I'm really proud of it. But now that it's happened, I hope people love it. I hope people buy the record. I hope radio plays it. I'll always want the music to reach as many people as possible. That's the goal. I'm not going to lie and say I don't want it to be successful. But there is less pressure than for a Lady Antebellum record, because once you've had success, there's so much expectation. With this I don't feel like there's as much pressure to hit numbers, so to speak. And I think that's what I needed, to get away from that stressful environment. It's hard to make music like that.
What would you say it's doing for your sense of creative satisfaction and your artistic credibility?
Every artist wants to be respected, I guess. I remember when [Lady Antebellum] started, I would get all these texts and calls, especially when "Need You Now" came out: "This song is blowing my mind." There was something so gratifying about hearing that from your peers. And then the phone kind of went silent for a few years. I was like, "Man, I wanna make music again that gets the town talkin', that really moves people." ...For me there's this beautiful thing of being able to have this huge commercial success with Lady Antebellum, but then being able to have this purely creative, artistic outlet. Whether it becomes this huge success or not, at least I know in my heart that I've made a record that I was 100% proud of and that I was uncompromising on it.
What did you do on this album that you wouldn't get to do in the group? And how is that art-first priority showing up in your decision-making?
Really what I wanted to do was cut some songs that I knew Lady Antebellum would never go to, songs like "Leaving Nashville." It's just a little too dark. I want [Lady Antebellum] to be something different — and to me we are. It is a band that all ages can come and listen to, and it's not polarizing. I love that — some of my favorite bands weren't polarizing, just good, solid (hopefully timeless) music. But I wanted to be able to cut songs like "Leaving Nashville," and "Lonely Girl." You know, "Lonely Girl" sung in three-part harmony doesn't have the same impact or the same sexiness as it does coming from a single person, you know?
There's this idea that if you go with a stripped-down sound, it can make the songs and the performances feel more personal, more revealing. The production of The Driver is definitely a little bit broodier than most of Lady Antebellum's stuff, but it's still nowhere near a folk album.
We cut it in a little rehearsal space in the back of our producer's office. It looks like a crappy version of Muscle Shoals. It's got old tiles on the wall and stuff everywhere. We stuffed the band, all of them, in one room, so there wasn't much isolation. What I love about it is you start getting all this bleed. The drums are bleeding into the amp mics, and the electric guitars are bleeding into the drum mics. You're getting all this beautiful, ambient sound. I think it's the warmest sound [album producer] Paul Worley's ever created.
It was me that encouraged him to do it in there, partly for budget, because I was paying him for the project. I didn't let the label know that I was even doing this. There was just something so unassuming about it. It's not like going into a fancy studio and there's all this pressure. It was very freeing, like we were doing a demo session in a garage. I think a lot of that came through in the music. It's very natural, and it's not as clean, because we didn't have all this isolation. It was like the way they used to make records, back in the '50s and '60s — they put [the musicians] all in one room.
How are you singing differently than you do when you're splitting the vocal parts three ways?
That was [something] Paul brought up. He sat me down and he goes, "I don't want to offend but, but I just feel like your voice has gotten a little cleaner and cleaner and sweeter as we've gone on."
Maybe it was the success of "Need You Now" and just naturally our sound started leaning more towards Adult Contemporary. The keys [we're singing in on] these records just kept going up and up and up. So I was singing higher and higher and I lost so much warmth in my voice. When you're trying to sing a harmony part and you're trying to make sure everybody's voice can be in this range, you're compromising a lot. Hillary's compromising too; sometimes that's to sing lower than she wants to and I have to sing higher than I want to. But it's part of the sound of Lady Antebellum.
So with this we would go through six different keys of each song until I found the perfect one. That was a luxury that I've never had. And that's why I think people are going, "Man, I didn't know that he could sing this gritty." It's because I haven't really been able to. So it's nice to get back to that.
I'm sure you'd say a lot of the material you've recorded is personal to you in one way or another, but "Only One Who Gets Me" is the first song you've ever presented as being written by you for your wife. How does it change the writing and performing experience for you when there's autobiography involved?
There are little specific things in there that are just our story. And I think a lot of people have that: "Gosh, [you're] the only person that can put up with my s***."
Did your wife recognize herself in the song the first time she heard it?
Oh, totally. She recognized me in that song. I'm selfish. I'm always reckless. I'm always thinking of the next thing. She always tries to encourage me to live in the moment and just breathe and not put so much pressure on life. ...When I played it for her, she knew right away it was about her.
When you write in a group, everybody's throwing in a little piece of their story. "Need You Now" was a little bit of where I'd been, and then there was a little bit of Hillary's story in there, a little bit of Dave's. But this was kind of the first time I was like, "If I'm gonna be singing it, just me, this can be 100% my story." I think it's something that people can relate to.
The Driver is out on February 5 on Capitol Nashville.