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Nashville Treasures – Lady Antebellum (Part One)



Courtesy of The Green Room PR

Press release: Thursday July 5 2007. A trio, Lady Antebellum, signed a record deal with Capitol. The group consists of lead female vocalist Hillary Scott, the daughter of Linda Davis, lead male vocalist Charles Kelley and guitarist Dave Haywood. The trio made their Grand Ole Opry debut last week. Scott, Kelley and Haywood all had their families there to share the event.

As this piece goes online, on July 5 2017, Lady Antebellum have become one of the most cherished and commercially successfully bands to come out of contemporary country. This small article on an industry website presaged ten years of huge acclaim at home and abroad, such that in October 2017 Lady Antebellum, or Lady A to their admirers, will be playing the Greenwich Arena in London as part of their world tour in support of the album of their career, Heart Break.

There has been impressive coverage on TV and online, with the band hitting The Tonight Show, The Late Show, CBS This Morning and Paste Magazine. They played with Earth Wind and Fire at the CMT Music Awards in Nashville, where they kicked off their tour which will also take them to South Africa, Holland, Ireland and the UK. Dates in familiar cities like Boise, Salt Lake City, St Louis, Omaha and Hartford prove that they have fans in the major American cities too, be it blue or red.

But how did three musicians get from that press release to Cape Town? Lady Antebellum, Nashville Treasures, are one of country’s most important acts. They are competent singers and award-winning songwriters, authentic but forward-pushing, pretty but a little stubbled, all-American but able to tour the world.

Early days

Spotting a big, tall guy in a bar who was one of her MySpace friends, Hillary Scott wandered over to Charles Kelley and said hello. Charles had come from North Carolina, leaving behind a life on the construction sites to pursue performance. His schoolmate, Dave Haywood, came to Nashville from Georgia, where the pair had gone to school.

Hillary was going to join the family business. Her mum is Linda Davis, a singer who married Lang Scott, also a musician who played in Reba McEntire’s band. Both of them had played the big stages in the 1980s, when baby Hillary was learning how to shape her sounds into musical notes. Linda went out on tour with the big superstars of the 1990s including Reba, Garth Brooks and George Strait, sang on Does He Love You, a chart-topping hit for Reba McEntire which won a GRAMMY. Hillary would later win a GRAMMY to add to the family cabinet, but more on that later.

‘You were on my hip in the studio!’ Linda told Rolling Stone Country on the occasion of Love Remains, an album of spiritual and gospel songs put out in 2016 by the Scott Family. ‘A lot of times I would get songs at the last minute when I did demos and such. I’d have the song in the car on a cassette and be learning it on the way to the studio…You’d be hearing it every time I’d play it, so you knew the song.’

Hillary would even help mom out at work with tricky parts. ‘I should’ve paid you a little bit. Maybe I got you a Happy Meal!’

Yet Hillary was initially reluctant to go into the family business, as she told The Boot in 2008: ‘I was home schooled — I watched school on video tape in the bus while my mom was touring…I wanted to be a vet, a nurse, a chef — I mean, anything but the music industry. But once I hit high school, the bug really bit me. You can’t deny where you come from and what’s in your genes.’

Hillary kept singing, and auditioned a couple of times for American Idol. She didn’t make it through the auditions, but having been around Nashville and especially the industry she must have known that she’d make it one day, to become one of many famous kids of famous acts following in the family tradition. After the meeting, the three began writing songs. The first one was All We’d Ever Need, and Hillary knew they were onto a winning formula, telling Acoustic Magazine in 2015: ‘When we put our voices together on that song and heard the three-part vocal blend, it felt really special. Some voices do not match, but for whatever reason the three of ours worked out.’

The name of the band, at least the Antebellum bit, arose from a style of houses built in the American South. It’s distinctive, even though I had trouble initially when I confused them with Little Big Town: both have boys and girls, both start with L, both have had massive hits with both ballads and uptempo tracks. Both are, confusingly, playing the UK in October, though LBT are in the slightly smaller, 5000-capacity Royal Albert Hall. The Greenwich Arena can seat 17,000.

This is all in the wildest dreams of the trio, who released their self-titled first album in 2008 the year after guesting on a track called Never Alone, a hit song for Jim Brickman. Their album was still selling well in 2010 off the back of their second album and their GRAMMY Song of the Year, and sounds terrific a decade on. In chart terms it was significant: no group or duo had entered at number one in the country album charts with their first release.

The big radio singles were I Run to You and Love Don’t Live Here (a number 3 hit), both significant as the band wrote them themselves, the latter just the three of them Promoting her solo album on The Bobby Bones Show in 2016, Hillary remembered being ‘so young’ when performing Love Don’t Live Here, their first single. ‘We trusted out gut’ with I Run To You, which the band wrote with Tom Douglas and which became an enormous hit that set the template for the ballad side of Lady A.

Slow Down Sister emphasises the boot-scootin’ side, with a poppy beat shared by Lookin’ for a Good Time. That one was co-written with Keith Follese, father of Ryan who wrote Something Like that for Tim McGraw. Keith and his wife, Adrienne, helped Hillary write Long Gone, while Things People Say is a Haywood-Kelley song which uses the strings very well and changes key in exactly the right place. I think they studied the Lonestar and Rascal Flatts songbooks.

The strings-soaked ballads All We’d Ever Need and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (the latter is a gorgeous waltz sung tenderly by Hillary) were both written by the band, as was the thinky-think ballad Do I, a song from the 2009 release from a then up-and-coming singer named Luke Bryan. Shame he didn’t have as good a career as the guys who wrote Do I for him…

Only one song on the album Lady Antebellum was an ‘outside write’: Love’s Lookin’ Good On You, one of the best cuts on the album, is a poppy tune that is matched by Home is Where the Heart Is (‘it took leaving for me to understand’). That one skips along prettily like Taylor Swift’s finest country songs, and includes a very country-sounding fiddle and lyrics about West Virginia and mama. Hillary sounds like a Dixie Chick in parts, surely on purpose. She has since become Hillary Scott, a singer to aspire to and one of the finest voices in pop music, let alone country.

Need You Now

Need You Now, the song, is, Hillary told Bobby Bones, ‘bigger than us’. Adele and Darius Rucker played it in 2011, in a broadcast for TV; Cheryl Tweedy and Gary Barlow played it in 2012 at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Her Majesty the Queen, which was beamed around the world. It just missed out on being crowned the best-selling song in America in all genres, peaking at 2 on the Hot 100, but spent 5 weeks at the top of the country sales chart at the end of 2009. It was also a top 20 hit in the UK, and a top 10 in Norway, Holland and Ireland.

The tracks on the album written by members of the band include Our Kind of Love, a number one in 2010, and Ready to Love Again. Both tracks introduced country music to Mike Busbee. It’s he who plays the piano riff on Need You Now, and indeed plays keys on the whole album, credited as busbee. More of him in the second part of the piece.

Need You Now the album had three ‘outside writes’, one of which was a number one hit in the US and Canada. American Honey is a typical Lady A track, starting with a twelve-string guitar tuned down to D-flat, Hillary comes in with the first line of a story, setting the mood by describing a girl who grew up in a church. A vintage pop beat comes in for the second part of the verse, which is joined by Charles Kelley’s harmonies.

There’s a wild, wild whisper blowing in the wind

Calling out my name like a long-lost friend

Oh I miss those days as the years go by

Oh nothing’s sweeter than summertime, and American honey

It’s a nostalgic song that may endure longer even than Need You Now (but the band do not get the songwriting royalties from it).

Love This Pain is an up-tempo song taken by Charles, with a great contemporary country instrumentation. Hello World, still a live favourite, was single number four, and like Love This Pain is an outside write. Big hitmakers who help the band in the writer’s room are Craig Wiseman (Something Bout a Woman), Rivers Rutherford (When You Got a Good Thing) and Jerry Flowers, who helped them write the buoyant Perfect Day, proving that the band still had the knack of writing a song like Lookin for a Good Time, which is also found on Need You Now.

The Difficult Third Album: Own the Night

And so, after a year of touring and promotion, Lady A put out album number three. Own the Night was a number one in the States and in fact one of the top 25 albums by sales in both 2011 (number 25) and 2012 (number 12). Significantly, it hit number four in the UK and number five in Australia.

Outside writes on Own the Night include Friday Night, a fun song written by Eric Paslay among others, and Heart of the World, by the band’s old collaborator Tom Douglas and the brilliantly-named Scooter Carusoe. ‘Love is the heart of the world’ may be one of the guiding credos of Lady Antebellum.

The other ten tracks were written by the band with a slew of collaborators. In May 2011, the group released the first single from the album, titled Just a Kiss, which used a wonderful piano motif and brilliantly blends the voices of the band. It was a top 10 hit in the all-genre charts, charting at 7 in the Hot 100, and of course became a country number one, their fifth.

Number one number six was the contemporary country sound of We Owned the Night, also a number one in Canada, which was written by the boys of the band with Dallas Davidson, who also wrote Just a Kiss. Singing Me Home was written by the boys with Rivers Rutherford. Patrick Davis contributed on Love I’ve Found In You, while Monty Powell is credited on both As You Turn Away and Somewhere Love Remains; he also wrote Stars Tonight, a song on Need You Now with one of Lady A’s weakest choruses (‘yeah! yeah! yeah!’)

Dancin’ Away with My Heart, another contemporary country tune, was from the team who brought you Need You Now (Haywood-Kear-Kelley-Scott) and was a number two country hit. The moon is ‘really a disco ball’ as Charles and Hillary trade lines in the first verse and unite in the chorus: ‘Sometimes I find myself wondering where you are,’ they sing as they ‘dance’, as if they’re whispering into each other’s ears as they sing.

When You Were Mine was another busbee special about love and loss. Hillary Lindsey helped the band write Cold as Stone, about a character whose part is sung by Hillary departing to New Orleans leaving poor Charles heartbroken. Both wish they lacked all power to feel, which is at odds with the orchestral passage which closes the track.

As a sign of their place in pop culture, in October 2011 they performed on Saturday Night Live. Earlier in the year the New York Times gave Jon Caramanica a thousand words to opine on Own the Night. I love his opening paragraph so much that I will quote it in full:

No act in contemporary pop is more careful than the bionic country trio Lady Antebellum, which never leaves a note out of place, which never lets a feeling spill outside the lines. It takes basic components — male-female harmony, sturdy pop arrangements with light brushes of country, an unerring sense of when to shift a song from desperate to redemptive — and arranges them in several different ways, with mostly similar results. These are plain and obvious tricks, shopworn from years of deployment. Lady Antebellum songs don’t try to hide anything. It’s infuriating. And brilliant.

Cold as Stone is praised as offering a ‘robust future direction for the group if it can continue to harness the same sense of darkness without sacrificing its penchant for the hopelessly pretty.’ Elsewhere, Will Hermes was harsh but fair in his review for Rolling Stone.

No band makes sketchy hookups sound as magnificently wholesome as this country pop juggernaut…Pumping up country’s boy-girl duet tradition in a trio format, but largely minus grit or wit, Lady Antebellum’s follow-up to their Grammy-gobbling Need You Now is a set of heart-squishing power ballads and airbrushed twang rockers ready to woo Walmart shoppers…They make you miss the Dixie Chicks.

Jon Caramanica, meanwhile, wrote that Own the Night ‘elevates this group’s fecklessness to high art. It makes no apologies for its blunt-force tactics. It owns its shamelessness. That cocksure stance helps to make it one of the most convincing albums of the year, a huge leap forward for a group that threatened to become famous without leaving a true mark.’

The review is worth reading in full, if you can get past the paywall, but selected highlights include Jon describing Charles as ‘a blue-eyed soul man shoehorned into country’, Hillary as ‘thrilled to be singing even the darkest lyrics’ and the songs themselves as ‘foolproof…expertly executed.’ Are the band, Jon asked, ‘a pillow-soft country act or a country-tinged soft-rock group’ whose songs fit snugly with the likes of Separate Lives, Baby Come to Me, Secret Lovers and Tonight I Celebrate My Love?

Does it matter when the LP still made number 1 in the Billboard Top 200 of all genres?

Read the second part of this piece here, and listen to a Lady A playlist full of tracks mentioned in this piece here.

Jonny Brick

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