Art is a moving target. Those who do it most successfully find shades of emotion within themselves that change the texture of their work and how they feel about themselves. As a result, a real artist is ever-changing.
So it is for Lady Antebellum, whose album Golden was figuratively – and literally – borne on the move. The harmony-based trio – Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood – and its sizeable fan base bonded heavily during the band’s Own The Night World Tour, its first arena run as a headlining act, in 2012. The shows themselves were inspirational. But so was the time offstage. Lady A made a point of experimenting and creating with its road band as the one-nighters and the miles of travel piled up. That behind-the-scenes interaction inspired much of the music on Golden, an instantly infectious project in which Lady A discovered new edges for its already-successful foundation.
“Every band I love that’s been here for a long time has reinvented itself in some way,” Kelley says. “There’s a balance to it. I get a little annoyed when people reinvent themselves too much because there’s a reason people fell in love with you in the first place, but I think it’s important not to regurgitate the same stuff over and over again.”
“Downtown,” Golden’s funky lead single, announced the new direction when Capitol released it in January 2013. The band gave it an energetic, playful performance with a noticeably cleaner production than the previous album, Own the Night. The recording uses fewer instruments – each of them framed distinctly in the sound – and Scott delivers the lead vocal with a full-on attitude that’s never been completely realized in previous recordings.
“Most of the songs on this album are literally just five instruments,” Haywood observes. “Five guys playing in the studio. So it’s a little more minimal than the previous stuff.”
“Downtown” became the highest-debuting single in the band’s career and instantly created a sense of anticipation for Golden by putting a new, surprising sheen on Lady A that even the band’s associates could not foresee.
“We embraced risk,” Scott notes. “When you are pushing yourself to not go back to the same well, you’re gonna come up with something different, or you’ll find songs that are different. And that’s what happened on this album.”
Risk is never the easy path, particularly for an act already at the top of its game. And Lady Antebellum certainly could have easily relaxed a little and emulated the previous album or two. After all, things were working.
Since its 2006 inception, the group had risen quickly to become Country Music’s most influential current group. Lady A won the Vocal Group of the Year honor from both the Country Music Association and from the Academy of Country Music three times in a row. Eight of the band’s singles went gold, with four – “American Honey,” “Need You Now,” “Just A Kiss” and “I Run To You” – surpassing the platinum mark. “Need You Now” went on to sell over seven million downloads, according to the RIAA. Additionally, “Need You Now” claimed five of the trio’s seven career Grammy wins in 2011, including the all-genre Record and Song of the Year.
All of that was achieved through a fragile balance of several key pieces, each of which helps define Lady Antebellum’s sound: ingratiating melodies, the interplay between Kelley’s soulful male resonance and Scott’s scintillating female texture, the threesome’s bittersweet harmonic blend, and production elements that invariably emphasize the stylistic inclusiveness of modern country.
That sound catapulted Lady A to an enviable level of popularity. The band picked up an audience beyond the typical Country core listener, it hit the road playing arenas and stadiums, and the group performed on all the major television shows, including Saturday Night Live, Oprah, the Grammys, The Voice, and most every other daytime and late night program on network television.
That kind of attention often destroys bands. The pride that goes with success begins to undermine the act, and the members compete for recognition. Ultimately, that delicate balance devolves into a tug of war and the act simply falls apart.
That’s an unlikely scenario for Lady A. Kelley, Scott and Haywood each play a key role, not only in the band’s harmonic development, but even in the day-to-day details of the group’s mission. Each of them are keenly aware that the other members need the right amount of attention – and the right amount of space – to make the entire band work.
“We’ve seen enough Behind The Musics to know how these things turn out,” Scott suggests. “As much as we all are confident about what we bring to the table, the second that you become a little too confident is when that balance shifts, and that’s when you can implode. We know that it’s not worth that.”
In some ways, Golden reaffirms the very beginnings of Lady Antebellum. The project focuses on deft songwriting and fresh uses of their talents, which was at the heart of what drew them together in the first place. Augusta-born Kelley met Nashvillian Scott at a Music City hot spot. Their creative partnership started with a songwriting appointment with Haywood, though they quickly realized their three voices combined in a way they’d never quite heard before.
“Golden,” the last song they wrote for the project, has a sense of innocence and rediscovery not far removed from those initial creative efforts.
“It really took us back to when we first met each other, when I first met the boys and we were sitting around the piano at the house they used to live in,” Scott says. “We didn’t know each other at all, but there was still some magic – that blend of our voices and that blend of our songwriting craft together. It’s exciting to say that at record four, we can still find that.”
The magic remains because they have kept the focus on the music. They started as songwriters, and they’ve continued to prove themselves in that field. In addition to writing most of their own hits, Haywood and Kelley co-authored buddy Luke Bryan’s breakthrough hit, “Do I”; and Scott was a cowriter of Sara Evans’ #1 single “A Little Bit Stronger,” featured in the movie Country Strong.
The passion for writing spilled over into the Own The Night Tour, and thus into Golden. The band set up a jam room at every venue, giving them some time to get into the right mental framework for the evening’s show. But it also provided more cohesiveness with their backing musicians and kept their inventiveness alive. “All For Love,” a dramatic title on Golden, was written by the entire band in the jam room in sessions at several different shows. The anthemic “Generation Away,” the nostalgic “Long Teenage Goodbye” and the steely “Goodbye Town” similarly emerged from writing sessions on the road.
“We were just kind of in that mindset,” Haywood says. “We had that perspective of being on a tour and having seen what translates in an arena. We have a better idea what kind of songs are so relatable where it shakes everybody like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve totally been there.’”
While the band was committed to its songwriting, Nashville’s music community busted down the doors with its A-list material. Six of the 11 songs on Golden came from outside writers, including the R&B-tinged “Downtown,” the Byrds-like “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone)” and the fragile “It Ain’t Pretty.”
The outside material was key in helping Lady A find new dimensions to its sound and new depths to its performances.
“We could never sit in a room together and write a song like ‘Downtown’ or ‘It Ain’t Pretty,’” Scott concedes. “Those songs that we didn’t write pull out of us different things that we couldn’t find within ourselves in a writing room.”
In the end, the mix of their road experiences and the challenging outside songs added a brightness and a freshness to the album that’s reflected in the Golden title.
“We keep calling it our roll-down-the-windows record, and that was one of the reasons why the term Golden was kind of cool,” Kelley says. “You know, you have these little road trips and you’re driving down the road and you get these little streaks of sunshine popping through the trees, especially at sunset as you’re driving. This golden thing. The album just gives you that warm, easy feeling.”
The road trip is key. The album emerged from the band’s concert tour – an over-sized road trip, if there ever was one – and it embraces the moving target that is creativity. Lady Antebellum’s familiar, established blend remains firmly intact, but there’s a sense of renewal about it, too. Golden is a reinvented version of Lady A that’s familiar but simultaneously unlike any of its predecessors. It’s an achievement that comes from the band’s journey, and from its willingness to risk.
“Golden depicts a kind of a special time for us in our career,” Haywood says. “I personally feel so humbled that we can still be making records that people are excited to hear. We’re in a really valuable, golden time.”