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‘It Took on a Life of Its Own’: An Oral History of Lady Antebellum’s Global Hit ‘Need You Now’

If it wasn’t for a series of fortunate accidents, “Need You Now,” Lady Antebellum’s Grammy Award-winning breakthrough hit, may have never made it on the group’s second album. The second song the Nashville-based country trio penned during a writing session with Josh Kear (“Before He Cheats,” “Most People Are Good”) on Feb. 25, 2009, all four co-writers admit they thought the first song they wrote that day was the surefire hit.

Since Lady Antebellum released “Need You Now" — which would end up the lead single and eventual title track off their sophomore album — on Aug. 11, 2009, the song has crossed genres and international borders, and remains a staple in the trio’s live show over the past decade. It hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart on Nov. 28 later that year, where it stayed for five consecutive weeks. The following March it peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100, a rare feat for a country act. 

While the song has been certified 9x Platinum by the RIAA, and garnered five trophies at the 2011 Grammys (including the all-genre record of the year and song of the year), “Need You Now” also made the band an international success, touring frequently overseas in the years to come. Additionally, “Need You Now” remained the top selling digital country song for over two years, spanning from April 2011 through December 2013. In total, it has sold 6.86 million downloads according to Nielsen Music, making it the No. 2 selling digital country song of all time, behind only Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” with 7.85 million. 

In celebration of the song’s 10th anniversary, Billboard spoke to Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott, as well as a number of collaborators and industry executives instrumental in the song’s success. Here, in their words, is the story behind “Need You Now.”

"IT WOULD PROBABLY NEVER SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY…"

Charles Kelley: It was the first time we’d ever written with Josh Kear. We wrote a song called “Young Love” and we finished it and I said, “Man, that feels awesome. It feels like a big ol’ hit.”  We finished that song in an hour and a half. I was like, “Well, shoot, man. We just got started.” 

I started playing around on guitar with a couple chords that Dave Haywood] and my brother Josh taught me, and I had a little bit of the first verse of “Need You Now.” Sings] “Picture perfect memories scattered all around the floor … And I wonder if I ever cross your mind.” That’s all I had. I passed the guitar back over to Dave and Josh Kear. 

Josh Kear (co-writer): Someone said, "Reaching for the phone ’cause I can't fight it anymore." No hesitation. This one had to be written. I don't remember it being a struggle at all. “Need You Now” was one of those songs that wanted to exist, and it felt like it the whole time we were working on it. 

Kelley: It’s so hard to remember exactly what happened, but Josh leaned into that chorus.

Hillary Scott: He sings really high, like a rocker. He has a higher tenor voice for a guy, and so he just ripped into that chorus melody.

Dave Haywood: I remember Josh soaring on the chorus]. The choruses that he writes are so big. That’s why we love writing with him.

Kear: At one point, there was a very brief discussion about the "I'm a little drunk" line in terms of if they would be willing to sing that line as a band. They had no issue, and the line was in. 

Scott: If anybody had pushback on that line] it was me — just from a female perspective, feeling like it was provocative saying that. Nowadays, you’ve got a lot of songs that are lyrically more frank. At the time, especially as a female, I thought], “How can we say this without fully saying it?” The authenticity and the realness of the lyric is what was going to win. That’s where everybody has been at some point in their relationship history, so why try to make it fluffy?

Haywood: Ten years ago, that was me before marriage. I remember being single and saying, “Man, that’s the way it is! That’s the truth. Late-night texting.” That’s what happens when you’re single. It’s a pretty accurate mindset.

Kear: At the end of the session we went to record the song live. One quick live pass work tape. No demo session. No overdubs. No engineer polishing it up so that it had that brilliant radio sheen on it. Just a quick, raw version of the song. Whatever that work tape was, it had just enough magic in it.

Haywood:  It was really just a pretty bad phone recording where] it's hard to find the chords, and we were still figuring out the right melodies and who's actually going to sing which parts. All the parts weren't hammered out yet.

Kear: We were all thrilled to have two songs we loved writing, and with the usual hugs and “great-to-meet-you's” they were out the door. I wandered downstairs and talked to my publisher Big Yellow Dog Music co-founder/CEO] Carla Wallace. She asked how it went and I told her we got two songs — the first one was an up-tempo like we were told they wanted, and I said I thought it would make their next record. She asked about the other one and I told her not to worry about that one — it was mid-tempo, dark and it would probably never see the light of day.

I turned in a rough demo for the first song and never played the “Need You Now” work tape for anyone. Not my publisher. Not my wife.

"THERE'S A LOT OF WHAT-IFS…"

Scott: It was literally the last song we played in our A&R meeting for this record. We had written so many songs, and we were sitting with A&R at Capitol Nashville with then Capitol Records Nashville president/CEO] Mike Dungan and producer] Paul Worley. At the end of our meeting, Charles was like, “OK, there’s one more and it might be crap but I’m going to play it.”  We played the simple work tape] and they heard something in it. They said, “You have to at least go in and try this.”

Paul Worley (producer): Autumn House Tallant] and Melissa Spillman, who were the A&R people on the project, both of them lit up like lightning. They were like, “This song's great! There’s something really good about this.” When we went into rehearsal the next week, I thought, “Well, let's just get that out of the way. Let's figure out if there's something there with that song, or we'll go back to our plan with the other songs.” 

Haywood: Paul was such an instrumental part in this song in crafting the arrangement, the sounds: the synth sound that opens the song, the piano hook that Mike Rojas played, the outro which we then moved to the front of the song as the hook. Paul, being the captain of that ship, did an incredible, incredible job.

Worley: We started off and played through the song a time or two with the full studio band in a rehearsal.

At the end of the second time through, Mike Rojas started playing those two chord changes back and forth and started playing that little piano lick. He was just jamming, but all of us were like, “Oh, what’s that?” I remember saying, “Well, let's start with that. Why don't we use that on the front end of the song?” I remember thinking, “I've always wanted to have an intro of a song that’s actually played by the bass guitar.” That was our point of departure and how the record came to be structured the way it was. We were sold — all of us were like, “Oh my God. This is the one.”

Kelley: Sometimes a demo can lead] the producer and the players into a direction. There was a part of me that wonders] if we ever had demoed it, we might've recorded it in a completely different fashion, and it might not have ended up where it needed to be. You never know. There's a lot of what-ifs.

Haywood: It’s kind of the little song that could. There's so many beautiful ways that it organically happened, and it was orchestrated, and it found its way to an A&R meeting and found its way to the studio and found its way onto the record and onto the radio.

"THAT SONG RESONATED WITH ANY HUMAN BEING THAT HAD A PULSE…"

Mary Hilliard Harrington (former publicist): That entire first album cycle had been about explaining who Lady A was, because there was a little confusion. First of all, they have a really strange name and then they had a male and female vocalist who were sharing lead vocals. I mean, no one knew what a Lady Antebellum was. 

Bobby Bones (vp/creative director at iHeartCountry and host of The Bobby Bones Show): I remember when they did a radio tour and they came through Austin. I thought it was a weird name. I thought Hillary’s] name was Antebellum, and so I met them not knowing the song yet. 

Harrington: Then 2009 Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 song] “I Run to You” really hit in a big way and started getting some early attention outside of the country format. When “Need You Now” happened, it broke them right open.

Bones: I thought they were way nicer than anyone in my pop] format. There were about seven or eight years where I checked out on country music because I was working in pop. “Need You Now” was one of those songs took me back to start listening to country music again.

Harrington: So much of what was happening in country at that time was starting to lend itself more to tempo, party types of songs. So, “Need You Now” as a leadoff track did feel like a little bit of a gamble, and maybe not what you would think about first. 

Steve Hodges (former senior vp of promotion at Capitol Records Nashville): It was summer, an interesting time to lead with a ballad or a slower tempo song. It was a vulnerable type of song that really didn't exist in the format at that time. I think the sonics of that particular track, the vulnerability of the vocals and how the song was written, really was multi-genre attractive and that's the reason it became a worldwide hit.

Harrington: That's always kind of a slippery slope for country artists when they “crossover.” I think I was feeling some cautiousness. I know this is a big thing in country because it went number one so quickly… I had a little cautious excitement as it was moving over to other formats. 

Hodges: Capitol Pop’s promotion division] was run by Greg Thompson and Dennis Reese. Those guys were taking songs by Lady A, Keith Urban and Little Big Town that had hits in country and then worked them to Hot AC, AC and some Top 40.

Bob Harris (veteran broadcaster of BBC Radio 2’s The Country Show): The interesting thing was how much this record crossed over and broke out of its country shell. It was naturally picked up by rock radio and pop radio in the U.K.]. At the time, Lady Antebellum weren’t plugging themselves. They didn't have any kind of machine to take their music outside of country. Radio stations outside of country picked them up organically, and that was really an amazing achievement. Clearly it was a record of the heart. They really meant that song. On every level, this record cut through all the noise around it and deeply affected people who were touched by it.

Hodges: The biggest memory for me was having that be a five-week number one at Billboard the last two weeks of November and the first three weeks of December. 

Haywood: It did so well at country and obviously crossed over to Top 40 in the U.S.]. The international stuff really started to blow us away. We always planned on being a band and touring the U.S., but when you hear that Europe, Australia and Japan, and all these places are starting to respond to that song and find it and buy it… That song went around the world and it was just wild to watch. It took on a life of its own unlike anything I'd ever witnessed in my life.

Harris: Lady A were one of the pioneer country acts that brought country music to the U.K.  There weren’t very many country groups in those days traveling to the U.K.]. From a U.K. perspective, 10 years ago it was rare for an American act to come over to Britain and take Britain seriously.

Haywood: It opened up a lot of doors for sure. Our manager Gary Borman] was like, “Y’all should go play over in London and see what happens.” I remember when our booking agent said, “If you guys want to really take a lot of international shows, we can go for it and we can do it ’cause the song has such a big life and has so many legs right now.” We wouldn't be playing in those places without that song. That song is the flagship that opened those doors for us.

Hodges: Then, that album Need You Now] coming out Grammy week in January. That big number just showed you the impact of one song: Their sophomore record sold nearly half a million copies in its first week]. You don't get many moments like that in a career, so you really cherish those.

Harrington: It is one example where putting out whatever the best song is wins over putting out what you think is working in the format. That song still stands the test of time.

Hodges: That lyric could fit anybody and any continent of any age, of any race, of any color. It was a universal saying. That song resonated with any human being that had a pulse. 

"WE WERE A LITTLE SHELL-SHOCKED…"

Kear: I had guarded optimism approaching the Grammys. The song had been pretty unavoidable at country, pop and AC radio, so it had some pretty crazy momentum going in. That said, Eminem and Rihanna were nominated for record of the year and song of the year with] “Love the Way You Lie” and it felt like it was time for rap to finally take center stage at the Grammys. I believed that song would win song of the year. Then “Need You Now” kept on getting called, over and over. It was pretty unbelievable. Even now it's hard to recapture in my mind how that felt. Goosebumps. Tremors. Shock. Euphoria.

Harrington: I remember being shocked that we were even in those all-genre] categories to begin with. Everyone says this, but the nominations themselves were such an incredible honor and unexpected. When they called Lady A’s name for the first all-genre category, it was really just complete shock and once they realized they had won three and it wasn't over yet, it turned to straight emotion.

Scott: The first few Grammy Awards], we were over the moon. We found out about the first award on the red carpet, which was such an electric way to start the whole night. Then, by the end of it, we are just looking at each other, dumbfounded. I don’t know if there’s a humanly possible way to process that in the moment. Still, to this day, almost 10 years later, I'm still reeling about that and having to go, “That really happened?”

Kelley: We had no idea we'd be getting on that stage to accept any Grammy Award]. We started running out of stuff to say. We were a little shell-shocked. It just was a wild, once-in-a-lifetime experience and it set up the rest of our career and longevity.

Worley: You're always grateful to win an award of any kind in the music business. The Grammys are the top. They’re the gold standard of how we judge ourselves. Golly, we were blown away. We were up there on this little stage and we're all standing there just really flabbergasted. Life is flashing by as fast as can be. It’s an out-of-body experience and to get more than one, it's what you live for.

Harrington: Everyone was super emotional and it was] an incredible moment of validation for all the hard work. I know as songwriters, how much that meant to them, and there was not a dry eye in the dressing room.

That night] kicked the door down to, “This is who Lady Antebellum is.” Everyone knew who they were the next day. They went from being a country band with a confusing name to a household name basically overnight. It was truly unbelievable.

Ken Ehrlich (executive producer of the Grammy Awards and president of Ken Ehrlich Productions): I remember thinking, “That's a great song.” It’s a very strong emotional song and lyric. Melodically, the tone of the song matches the lyric and that's not always the case. Their voices are magical. I was very excited when they won. They set the standard and it’s great to watch them do it.

"TIMING IS EVERYTHING…"

Harris: It could have been released the day before yesterday. It sounds so fresh still. You can genuinely say it's one of the great records. It absolutely is. Ten years on, that record is still as relevant to me now as it was when I first heard it.

Harrington: Timing is everything, and it was just the right song at the right time with the right voices. It was magical. It was a really special time for them and such a big moment in their career.

Kelley: When I look back, I think a lot of stars aligned. There's so many hooks to this song that came together out of nowhere that you have to think there’s some higher power, or musical gods, coming together and giving us this little nugget. It's all timing. At the time, it sounded so different, which is why it took off. There wasn’t really anything else sounding like that. It had a little bit of that ’80s ballad throwback feel to it. It felt different and fresh.

Scott: It never gets old, that feeling of hearing it on the radio]. More than anything, I think it’s the lyric. I think it is a lyric and a story that no matter how old you are, no matter what relationship] you're in, it’s something that everyone experiences in one way or another. I think that is what gives it that timeless quality.

Kear: "Guess I'd rather hurt than feel nothing at all." For me, that lyric] holds so much truth in life. Living is putting yourself out there. Being vulnerable. Risking hurt, failure, humiliation, heartbreak … But what's the point of living if you never risk feeling any of those things? That line means more to me with every passing year. I do believe “Need You Now” tapped into something we all know and feel in a way that was and continues to be very powerful. For that I'm grateful. 

Bones: It's a universal song. I just loved the piano. I loved Hillary's voice. I think most people could relate to the drunk dial. Lady Antebellum was really one of the pioneers of turning me back into someone who wanted to work in the country format.

Haywood: What really blew me away was how many responses people had with the lyric and how many different ways they interpreted it. The lyric is your desperate, longing, late-at-night for somebody, but for so many people that we talked to and saw online, it was just a love song for them. A love song in their relationship: “I need you; I need my partner.” Need is a pretty strong word. The lyric was so beautifully simple that everybody took that phrase and made it their own. That was a global theme, the need for someone else.

Worley: That song] defied the rules and rigors of “commerciality” and yet, something about it, made all of us fall deeply in love with the song. Working with Lady A was magic in every way. I knew the first time I saw them it was going to be different, and worth the effort and the temporary discomfort of getting outside of my comfort zone at a record label] in order to do it. We were all dedicated. We were in it for the music.

Scott: It’s our biggest, most connecting moment in the show to this day. It’s become one giant singalong. We hear people say, “Yeah, we karaoke this song.” I think there's a lot of ownership by the fans, by the listeners. They sing it out like they sing it every night like we do. It's really cool to have that moment every night in the show where it’s just one big karaoke song.

Hodges: There seem to be those timeless songs, especially in country and “Need You Now” is] one of them, and it's only 10 years old. I think 10 years from now people will still be playing “Need You Now.”

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