In the first part of this essay, Jonny Brick wrote about the origins of Lady Antebellum and their rise to the success of the GRAMMY-laden albums Need You Now and Own the Night. How did the band fare with their ‘difficult’ fourth and fifth albums? Find out in this second part…
The Difficult Fourth Album: Golden
It must be tough writing a killer song that comes from only your second album. Albums three, four and five come along and all people want to hear when you tour them is ‘the albatross’, the song that defines your band and which probably sold most of the tickets in the first place. Counting Crows have had it for 25 years with Mr Jones (and when I saw them in London in 2012 they didn’t play it!!), while Rolling Stones fans have waited for Satisfaction for 50 years. They always get Satisfaction.
Likewise, Lady Antebellum fans will always hear Need You Now, their career song. Golden, their fourth album, has I think an even better song in Can’t Stand the Rain, again with a simple looped chord pattern and sombre mood, again written by the band with Josh Kear. The second verse contains a line said by Hillary’s grandpa to her at the end of his life: ‘Don’t you worry ‘bout me baby, you just go on, do what you gotta do’. Here’s the chorus:
With arms open wide, I’ll be your umbrella when you just can’t stand the rain
Be there by your side, I wanna be your shelter when you just can’t stand
When you just can’t stand the rain
Goodbye Town was written by the same people, but missed the Top 20 in sales and Top 10 in airplay. Perhaps this is because by 2012, Youtube and streaming services like Pandora had filled the hole where downloads previously sat. Indeed the band have used Youtube brilliantly to keep in touch with their fans; they put up footage shot on Steadicams when they were on tour in 2009, and launched Golden with an acoustic session including commentaries on some tracks.
The big hit from the album was Downtown, a song dominated by a two-chord pattern that the band have performed live with the human beatbox Luke Laird, who added Downtown to his collection of radio airplay number 1s, as did Shane McAnally, as did Natalie Hemby (it was stuck at 2 in the sales chart behind Cruise). It is a great song to sing in a karaoke bar downtown, appropriately enough.
Hillary Lindsey is credited three times on Golden, on Get to Me, Nothin Like the First Time and Long Teenage Goodbye. Only the last of these was written with Lady A and is very much in their ‘wheelhouse’; you can tell by the title alone!
With the help of the harmonica playing of the man who wrote it, Charles recorded a great version of Better Off Now (That You’re Gone), the song by Will Hoge that remains the rockiest track the band have ever recorded. Perhaps the prettiest is It Ain’t Pretty, written by Nicolle Galyon and Eric Paslay, which Hillary sings with passion and heartache: ‘It ain’t pretty when a heart breaks,’ she sings. Nicolle told Bobby Bones that the song was her first cut on anyone’s album, which made other artists sit up and become ‘aware of me as a writer’.
Eric, meanwhile, also wrote Golden’s title track with the band, which starts gently with an acoustic guitar and contains a super melody. It ought to come back into the band’s live shows. Both All For Love and Better Man had an unusual number of writers, six for the latter and eight for the former. As Hillary revealed in a video for their Youtube channel, All For Love was written during sound checks with their full band, with Charles adding lyrics on the tour bus. It’s a real full-band song, which makes perfect sense since it came from a workshop with the rest of the guys.
Compass, meanwhile, is a pop song: you can tell it’s a pop song because it’s got some Swedes in the credits, along with Ross Golan, presenter of the terrific And the Writer Is… radio show. Compass, which was released separately from the album Golden, was another airplay number one that also hit number six on the Hot Country Chart. It sounds, and this is a compliment, like the best Eurovision song never given to Eurovision. If the States ever follow Australia into Eurovision, this type of song, with a Mumford beat and a message to ‘let your heart, sweet heart be your compass when you’re lost’.
The Difficult Fifth Album: 747
Golden was a top 10 album in the UK, hitting number 7, and was another number one album in the overall US Top 200; it also went top 10 in Canada and Australia, and even came out in Taiwan and the Philippines. Even better for Hillary, she gave birth to a daughter in July 2013, which kept the band off the road in support of Golden. They returned with their Take Me Downtown tour in 2014 (due to start in November 2013) which sensibly stayed in the US and Canada.
While on the road, Lady Antebellum were working on album five. The band produced 747 with Nathan Chapman, and told Acoustic Magazine that he brought an ‘infectious energy in the studio’, as Charles said. Released in September 2014, 747 was kept off the number 1 in the Top 200 by Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett. It was released in the same quarter as albums by Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line.
Though it was not classed as country, Taylor Swift put out 1989, while Lady Antebellum’s pop sounds were still all over country radio. Shake It Off? Pop. Long Stretch of Love? Country. Bartender? Country. Blank Space? One of the pop songs of the decade.
The band wrote Long Stretch of Love and One Great Mystery with (take a guess…) Josh Kear; Freestyle and Just a Girl were written with Shane McAnally, while Sounded Good at the Time is another co-write with the Warren Brothers. Brad and Brett Warren, who helped write Cruise, had written Generation Away, the closing track on Golden.
Bartender was written with Rodney Clawson, husband of Nicolle Galyon (writer of It Ain’t Pretty) and gained them a number 4 in sales and number 1 in airplay. It’s another heartache song, but this time Hillary’s narrator gets bladdered as she seeks to ‘chase that disco ball around till I don’t remember’.
A lot of outside cuts made their way onto the album, and some tracks are less immediate. Many drift by on first listen, including Lie With Me, the understated song which references Motown records written by Abe Stoklasa and Marc Beeson.
She Is is a fine song by Ben Rector and Jeff Pardio, while the title track was written by Gordie Sampson, Cary Barlowe and Caitlyn Smith, the last of whom wrote Tacoma, which was recorded by Garth Brooks.
Damn You Seventeen, the album’s oddest track, is ill-suited to the band’s voices, or maybe we’re not used to hearing them so quiet. It’s a Laird-Clawson-McAnally cut. Better are the ‘tempo songs’ included on the deluxe edition of the album as bonus tracks: Slow Rollin (Clawson-Laird) and All Nighter (Jimmy Robbins, Nicolle Galyon – Mrs Rodney Clawson – and David Hodges). The latter became a cut for Dan + Shay; it opened their Obsessed album but was looked over as the third single from the album in favour of a Lady A soundalike called Road Trippin’. Falling For You, the third bonus track, is a Lady A collaboration with busbee which points towards the ‘tempo’ songs on the Heart Break LP.
Their early success meant they were headlining their own tour within three years of being signed, thanks to Need You Now. They have since embarked on big tours in support of all their albums, and are now on their fifth headline tour. Back before Need You Now, they went out on the road with Martina McBride (good idea), Jason Aldean (strange idea) and the holy trinity of Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban (brilliant experience).
After completing their Wheels Up tour, which took the band to the UK in March 2015, the band’s only musical activity in 2016, during a sabbatical year, was on Forever Country, which Shane McAnally produced. Who would have thought back in 2007 that Dave, Charles and Hillary would be standing in a computer-generated field with Dolly Parton and Charley Pride?
Rather unfortunately the band haven’t won a CMA Award since 2011, where they took Vocal Group of the Year for a third successive year and the era of Rascal Flatts was declared over. I Run to You was the CMA Single of the Year in 2009, while in 2012 they were denied Album of the Year for Own The Night; they were content, however, with the GRAMMY Award for it that year.
The GRAMMY Awards have been very kind to them. Need You Now won Best Country Album and the title track won Best Country Song, Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (the same category which they had won with I Run to You in 2009) and both Record and Song of the Year.
They were up for Best New Artist in 2009 and won an award for I Run To You despite losing out in 2010 for Best Country Song. In the 2011 GRAMMYs, they cleaned up: nominated for six, they won five, only losing out for the Album of the Year. Of all genres.
Need You Now is responsible for most of their trophy cabinet. It won them the CMA Award 2010 and two ACM Awards in 2010 for Single Record and Song of the Year. The ACM Awards have also been kind to the band, who were named Top Vocal Group in three consecutive years (2010 to 2012). In 2011 they took Album of the Year.
They won the Teen Choice Award for Country Group five years running (2010 to 2014), and at the AMA Awards, they were voted Favorite Country Band, Duo or Group for four years in a row (2010-2013, losing in 2014). The Billboard Music Awards gave them Top Country Artist in 2012 having given a bauble to Need You Now in 2011 for Top Country Song; they lost out that year for Country Artist and Country Album, and lost out in the latter category in 2012.
CMT Music Awards have come to them for their country music videos. They have won five Group Video of the Year awards out of twenty nominations: Need You Now, Hello World, We Owned the Night, Downtown (which has Dave and Charles dressed up in police uniforms) and Bartender. Others to be nominated include Lookin for a Good Time (the band on a Top of the Pops style show), American Honey and Compass.
This may because the band are as great to look at as they are to hear. They look good, to quote the title of their most recent hit, to be discussed in the final part of this essay.
Hear a playlist of tracks mentioned in this three-part piece here: https://open.spotify.com/user/jonnybrick/playlist/3sBlDF0hRnBXc0A42TigKn