When Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood were starting out as Lady Antebellum 13 years ago, the Nashville-based trio scored early gigs — and made a name for themselves — at local music venue 3rd & Lindsley. Which is why, in September, the five-time Grammy Award-winning country act chose that very same place to debut several songs off its upcoming seventh album, Ocean, for friends, family and industry insiders.
The intimate gig was a celebration for the band in more ways than one; Ocean, out Nov. 15, will be its first album on its new label, BMLG Records, after over a decade with Capitol Records Nashville. Days before the show, Kelley explained the change was necessary, as the band wanted more freedom to take artistic risks — and make the album they wanted to make.
“We felt like it was time for a fresh perspective,” says Kelley, 38, his 6-foot-6 frame settling into a leather couch at a studio in Music City. “We wanted a bit more of a boutique feel, where we could maybe, again, be someone’s new pet for a while.”
Enter Big Machine Label Group. While searching for a new label last year, the trio met with BMLG Records president Jimmy Harnen and BMLG president/CEO Scott Borchetta at Kelley’s home.
Haywood, 37, says the support they felt was immediate, which made the decision an easy one — Lady Antebellum signed a new recording contract in September 2018. “It felt like the early days again,” says Haywood of the excitement in the room. (Capitol did not respond to request for comment.)
The new deal reunited Lady Antebellum with Harnen, who championed the band from the start — Harnen was formerly senior vp promotion at Capitol Nashville, where he led a team that in 2009 helped Lady Antebellum’s “I Run to You” become its first of now nine No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. “Harnen] pushed that song over so many hills,” recalls Kelley. “I remember what a workhorse he was. I’d always kept it in the back of my mind, in case we could ever work with him again. He just never sleeps.”
Now, Harnen is aiming for similar success with Ocean’s Dann Huff-produced lead single, “What If I Never Get Over You,” a stirring track that features Kelley and Scott trading vocals and recalls the band’s 2009 crossover hit “Need You Now.” The new single sits at No. 12 on the Country Airplay chart. Ocean is the first time Huff (Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts) worked with the trio — its last album was produced by the late songwriter–producer busbee — and says he first heard the band play at 3rd & Lindsley before it was signed. He has wanted to work with the act ever since.
Huff’s production puts the band’s harmonies and more-vulnerable-than-ever lyrics at the forefront, best heard on the album’s title track, a stripped-down piano ballad featuring Scott’s wavering vocals, and on the Kelley-co-written confessional “Be Patient With My Love,” on which he sings of drinking too much and saying things he regrets. “As a band], we were struggling with communicating what we wanted, and it came out in a big ole storm,” says Kelley. “And we got past it.”
Lady Antebellum formed in 2006, shortly after Nashville native Scott, now 33, discovered Kelley’s music on Myspace. One day, she recognized Kelley at a local venue and approached him — he had just moved to the city with his childhood friend Haywood from Augusta, Ga., to pursue music. The three decided to book studio time, and quickly realized their three-part harmonies were undeniable. After signing with Capitol, they were introduced to revered producers like Paul Worley, Nathan Chapman and busbee — and became a country radio mainstay with early chart-toppers “I Run to You,” “American Honey” and “Just a Kiss.”
Though busbee didn’t produce Ocean, he does appear on its credits; he co-wrote “Alright” with Lady Antebellum and Justin Ebach. The uplifting tune stands out for its self-reflective lyrics, and after busbee’s unexpected death this September from brain cancer — the producer, born Michael James Ryan, had worked with everyone from Maren Morris to P!nk to Dan + Shay — it holds even more meaning for the band. Now, as the members sit in the studio only days after his death, they all tear up when discussing the song. “This is, really, our last piece of recorded music with him, as hard as it is to say that,” says Scott. “It is absolutely priceless to have this song.”
“I feel like this is the message he would want to leave,” adds Haywood. “As part of the grieving, I was going back through some messages. He would send me a text out of nowhere, like, ‘Man, I was thinking about you the other day and hope you and your family are doing well.’ These lyrics represent that — this is what he would want people to remember him by.”
Lady Antebellum isn’t sure if it will play the song on tour just yet; at the band’s Nashville preview performance, the group said it was too hard to perform that night. “I don’t think we’d be able to get through it,” said Kelley. For now, Lady Antebellum is focused on celebrating the product of so much change. “We couldn’t have made this record 10 years ago,” says Haywood. “It started to feel really personal, and we just decided to go for it.” Adds Kelley: “We were living in such fear of putting out songs that might have taken a little more time to build]. We’re in a spot where we’ve got nothing to lose.”
Reunited, And It Feels So Good
Jimmy Harnen on working with Lady A — again.
You helped break Lady Antebellum a decade ago. What are the biggest differences you see in the band now?
They’re still the same three great kids that they were when I met them back in 2007. Even after all of their global success, they’re grounded — and charming.
Charles Kelley said you played a major role in “I Run to You” becoming the band’s first Country Airplay No. 1. What were some of the challenges?
I was very outspoken that “I Run to You” should be the second single off of their debut album. Nothing against the actual second single, which was called “Lookin’ for a Good Time,” but it just felt very kitschy to my ears. I remember the first day I heard “I Run to You,” Charles and his wife, Cassie, came to my house in Franklin Tenn.] and it instantly felt special. I was taken in by the message of how we all need that special person in our life when our compass gets a little off. I don’t recall too many roadblocks, though there were a few weeks when the single moved back on the chart, but that’s not unusual. Lady A also worked their butts off, and their fans saw that and responded so positively to their efforts.
How has the band been able to maintain its success for over a decade now?
They are ambassadors for country music in every sense of the word. I’ve watched them, countless times, jump out of red-carpet lines to spend extra time signing autographs for fans at awards shows, concerts and events. Most recently, they walked a 100-yard line of fans at the Music City Walk of Fame just to shake hands and take selfies before receiving their star.
What does the next decade look like for Lady A?
They are now in a place where they are completely comfortable in their own skin and no longer chasing anything but being Lady A.