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Music City

Interview by Holly Gleason

Charles Kelley has just about done it all. The gritty-voiced power singer of country-crossover juggernaut Lady Antebellum qualified for the 2020 Pebble Beach Pro-Am after “four or five tries,” and he’s happy about achieving something so coveted. Kelley has seen solo success with “The Driver,” written and sung on hits with friends Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker and Dierks Bentley and won multiple CMA and ACM Vocal Group of the Year awards with bandmates Hillary Scott and Dave Heyward. They’ve also won two of the Big Four—Song and Record of the Year for the unforgettable “Need You Now”—among their haul of seven Grammys.

With 2019’s “What If I Never Get Over You”—their first single for Big Machine after a decade and six albums with Capitol Nashville—the well-liked hitmakers have done the unthinkable, reinventing their harmonies-and-guitar-centered sound and returning to #1 at Country radio. As their latest hit emphatically reminds us, no act in Nashville understands the complicated nature of romantic entanglements like Lady A, who bring an immediacy and urgency to hooking up, breaking up and everything in between.

Congrats on Pebble Beach.
I grew up playing golf, and only 25 teams of 150 make it. My best friend was there, so it was a really big deal.

Kinda like changing labels and returning to #1.
That Capitol Nashville team was so instrumental to our success, and they’re still absolutely amazing. But with where we are in our career, it was maybe time to be at a more boutique label. Big Machine is so very hands-on, almost like we’re a baby act. They brought fresh ears and perspective to our music, and that’s not easy to find this far into a career.

Lady A has had a ton of hits over the years.
[Laughs] It’s funny. We had so many #1s, it was almost inconvenient to book a #1 party. And now, it’s “How fun was that?”

With all that success, how can y’all stay hungry?
We still have a lot to prove. We’ve been together 13 years, but we’re relatively young. We’re all in our 30s, and we’ve got a lot of music to make. Maybe on our third, fourth or fifth records, we didn’t dig as deep as we could, but between touring and having families, focus shifts. Jimmy Harnen and everyone at Big Machine didn’t give us a deadline, because they knew it too. Most of our favorite bands had that season of change, and they came back stronger.

In some ways, you’ve returned to what you do best.
We’re not the most traditional band, but we have a sound. I’m obsessed with Bob Seger and The Allmans. Hillary grew up watching her mom [Linda Davis] and Reba. Dave is all about the playing, and together, it’s us.

While women have had a hard time at Country radio, Hillary’s been perhaps the most consistent female voice of the last 15 years at the format.
I wouldn’t be lying if I said Hillary is our most recognizable voice.

The fact you share vocals makes it a point/counterpoint of genders. Kinda like Fleetwood Mac without the sex or the break-ups.
That two-person perspective is our biggest weapon. I’m a little grittier. Dave has this warm harmony, but really, it’s how we sing to each other that opens these songs up.

Like the new one?
“What If I Never Get Over You” was pitched to us for one person. But the minute we turned it into a duet, it felt urgent. These were two people knowing where they were, but also worried about what if this love is so big they can’t move on? For the country listener, or anyone, when you listen and hear that other person’s perspective, you get so much more involved. We know when we listen and we feel it; then we try to really focus in on what’s doing that.

And there was no Fleetwood Mac drama, right?
We started as a brother/sister thing—we call each other out and we support each other. I love to work, and that’s why I did the solo record. We’d been on the wheel for so long, and Hillary wanted to stay home with her twins. No drama—go do it. We try to make sure everyone gets what they need, especially with our families.

You really love this band.
Oh my God, it’s such a warm blanket to fall into—Lady A and what it is. It feels great to be doing this with two of my best friends. We try not to overthink things, and every bit of this has led us here. It keeps us hungry, it keeps us pushing as writers and artists and, especially, it keeps us loving being out there with the fans.