The hits have never really stopped coming since country trio Lady A first showed up on radio in 2007. And after 14 years, six kids, one name change and eight albums, the group - originally known as Lady Antebellum - is ready to talk about the takeaways from the hiatus they took about halfway through their career.
Since their debut single ‘Love Don’t Live Here’ was released, it’s been a long and steady stream of one chart-topper after another - ‘I Run to You’, ‘Need You Now’, ‘American Honey’, ‘Downtown’, ‘Compass’, ‘Bartender’, and so on and so on and so on.
Until the day that Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood decided collectively to press pause, shortly after their 2014 album 747.
It wasn’t that the three of them stopped making music, they just stopped making it as a band. It was the right time for some introspection, growing up and pursuing some side passions. For Charles Kelley, it led him to release a southern rock inspired solo album called The Driver. For Hillary Scott, it was her chance to shine on Love Remains, her neo-gospel project. And for Dave Haywood, he opted to sit in the producer’s chair for a handful of country newcomers.
Then came the babies: six children were born to the band members between 2013 and 2018. Then there was the decision to try a new producer.
All of which allowed Scott, Kelley and Haywood to do the soul searching they needed to determine that in their hearts, they were better off as a band – an even better one, at that, thanks to the three-year pause.
With the trio’s eighth album What a Song Can Do due out on Oct. 22, Holler caught up with Scott, Kelley and Haywood to talk about the lessons they’ve learned from day one of what has become an enduring career.
One of the most important lessons, from Kelley’s perspective, is that absence makes the heart grow fonder. He admits that when he was making his solo album, he realized how much he appreciated Scott and Haywood. “When you step away you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ It didn’t feel quite as natural to do it alone as it did to do it as a group,” he said, calling that time away a you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-‘til-it’s-gone epiphany.
“It was part of our journey, and it brought us closer. And it made us want to chase different things that we were afraid to chase before. Because of my solo album, it made me want to cut ‘Be Patient with My Love’ for our Ocean album. Everything happened for a reason. It sounds cliché, but I’m finding it to be truer and truer as I look back on that.”
Kelley also credits that break as one that stopped the band from becoming “No-Starbucks” famous.
“Without that pause, maybe we would’ve been on such an overwhelming trajectory to where it would’ve made us not last and maybe even resent each other. I feel like we’re at the most perfect little level of fame: we get to touch it, then leave it, and then I can still go do anything. Like go to Starbucks. When I see some of my friends who are crazy super famous - they can’t just walk into a Starbucks anymore like I can.”
Scott echoes Kelley’s sentiments that her song ‘Thy Will’ – which won her and the Scott Family a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song – also paved the way for the band’s 2019 album. “I might not have been ready to make Ocean if I hadn’t released ‘Thy Will’”, she said.
“at the end of the day, we sit down with one guitar and three vocals and these songs have to fill a room”
Now that the band has longevity to look back on, all three of them agree that they make the greatest music when they let the best song win. A feat that is easier said than done when there’s an unofficial insistence in Nashville that you have to write for the radio.
“It just always has to be about the song. We’ve gone through different phases, different producers and different sounds,” Haywood said, “but at the end of the day, we sit down with one guitar and three vocals and these songs have to fill a room. That’s the test of it being a great song. We keep our focus on that, no matter what’s trendy or what’s going on.”
14 years as a band might feel like a lifetime in country music years, but for Lady A, it’s been more of a coming of age. Personally, as well as musically. Early in their career, their booty-call ‘Need You Now’ hit was a perfect fit for who they were in 2009. But now, they’re cutting songs that belong with the older and wiser band: with the power-of-a-song hit ‘What a Song Can Do’, the top-shelf tequila and Levi’s epitome of ‘Like a Lady’ and the ballad of what truly matters most, ‘Worship What I Hate’.
Or even a song like ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends’ - a bona fide hit collaboration with Carly Pearce, Thomas Rhett, and Darius Rucker - could only come from having spent a decade and a half in the tight-knit Music City community.
Scott says that they’ve spent their entire career striving to be honest in their lyrics, and that on this new album, they’ve nailed it. “With this record in particular, I find myself more grateful for the life lived, for the maturity we’ve had to find and for knowing that these new songs are ones we couldn’t have written in our 20s,” she said. “Learning things the hard way and coming to terms with the not-so-pretty parts of yourself allows us to meet people right where they are with our music.”
So far, what that’s meant for Lady A is 11 no. 1s, 18 million albums sold, 34 million tracks, five billion digital streams and multiple CMA, ACM and Grammy awards and nominations. But even if the new album doesn’t land in those same coveted spots, the band has made peace with that. They’re writing songs that matter, even if they don’t always matter to the people who sanction what gets played on country radio.
“there are so many moments where we find ourselves on stage and in writing rooms where it feels exactly the same as it did 14 or 15 years ago”
As they have done in the past, the trio made sure they had a hand in writing for this album, and it shows. (There’s only one track that doesn’t have their names on it.) So in a way, this brand new album is a lot like their very first one released in 2008.
“You could say that everything has changed: we’ve walked together through marriages and having children and losing loved ones and every bit of our lives and our careers. When the band was healthy and when it wasn’t. We’ve grown up and matured and changed, but then there are so many moments where we find ourselves on stage and in writing rooms where it feels exactly the same as it did 14 or 15 years ago. That’s the most sweet and magical part of it all,” Scott said. “When it feels eerily the same as it did in the beginning.”
For Haywood, now that the world is slowly coming out of the Covid pandemic, he’s found that same familiar feeling by being out on tour again. Just a few weeks before the new album’s release, Lady A were playing a show and hanging out backstage doing what they’ve always done. “We were on the road, we were writing before our show, just having fun, making a drink and writing a song. I was like, ‘We still have the thing!’ Those are the times that still feel like Day One,” he shared.
“While the universe has shifted around us, with the six kids and all the moving parts, the core of us being us is the same.”
Lady A's new album, What A Song Can Do, is out now via Big Machine. Listen below.