A variety of things could have influenced a group called Lady Antebellum, in which two of the three members (Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood) are from Augusta, Ga. Taken literally, the band name might reflect an aesthetic that’s full of feminine graces and altogether of another era. Taken geographically, one might expect that Kelley and Haywood picked up a thing or two during their formative years in James Brown’s hometown.
But band name logic doesn’t exactly hold true for the rising country vocal trio (rounded out by vocalist Hillary Scott), since they arrived at their moniker on a whim during a photo shoot. “We were taking photographs in front of those big old, white-column, Gone With the Wind-style homes, and that word [‘antebellum’] just kind of came out that day,” offers Haywood, the group’s multi-instrumentalist and backing vocalist. “We threw ‘lady’ in front of it for some random reason. We have no idea why.”
Nor do Lady Antebellum really sound anything like the Godfather of Soul. But the rhythmic current of a song like “Love’s Lookin’ Good on You” shares a tiny bit more in common with Brown’s relentless, cathartic grooves than it does with the band name. “We grew up having James Brown all over the news, events downtown and all these things,” Haywood recollects. “In the jazz band, we’d play James Brown music.”
Lady Antebellum’s self-titled debut leans more toward energetic adult contemporary pop, rock and R&B than anything that would merit the term “traditional country.” And—though it’s not entirely lacking in delicate feminine touches (case in point: Scott’s string-swathed ballad “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”)—it’s mainly populated with exuberant, uncomplicated takes on hooking up, telling off and breaking up.
“We all kind of have our things,” Haywood says of their stylistic contributions. “I mean, Hillary’s such a traditional country [music] person.” Scott’s mother is ‘90s country singer Linda Davis—a former tourmate of Reba McEntire—and Scott sought her own country record deal. “But also she loves soul music. That whole Motown, R&B thing is huge for both Charles and Hillary. I love a lot of country from the ‘90s. I love Nirvana, Dave Matthews—a lot of rock from the ‘90s as well. We try and take everything and throw it into a blender and see what we can come up with.”
The story of the group’s genesis is just as contemporary. Haywood and Kelley left stable jobs in accounting (both have degrees in finance from the University of Georgia) for the more appealing adventure of writing songs in Nashville. “[Charles] moved up there and called me three months later and said, ‘Man, you’ve got to come up here. This is the place to be. Quit what you’re doing and come give it a shot while we’re young,’” Haywood recalls. “That’s what I did.”
From Augusta to National
Haywood and Kelley met in middle school in Augusta, but they didn’t start writing songs together until college. Haywood had also played some music with Kelley’s older brother, pop singer/songwriter Josh Kelley. It was the elder Kelley who gave them a place to crash in Nashville and record demos that they posted on MySpace.
It was the Internet that brought Scott and Kelley together. “She’d been listening to his music on MySpace,” says Haywood. “She recognized him at this bar. Charles got her number to write, and they always joke about hitting on each other.”
Scott, Kelley and Haywood inadvertently backed into forming a band. Over the summer of 2006, they spent every free moment writing songs together. At the time, they thought of themselves as a solo performer (Scott) and a duo (Kelley supported by Haywood on guitar and vocals) writing together in hopes of getting songs placed with established acts. Ironically, the songs ultimately became the core of their own album.
The trio decided to test-drive what they’d written by playing a just-for-fun show at downtown Nashville bar 3rd and Lindsley. But the reaction they got gave them pause. “Hillary had already been singing solo stuff for years in Nashville,” says Haywood. “Me and Charles couldn’t get anything going under his name for a year. Then, the first show we play, we already have people who are flipping out about it. There was an energy that was created having the three of us there. I know for a fact it wasn’t happening like that for us individually.” They kept playing there every other week and eventually got the attention of Capitol Records.
Paul Worley—who’d worked on the similarly dynamic, vocal-based Dixie Chicks’ first two albums—produced Lady Antebellum with country singer/songwriter Victoria Shaw. Haywood contributed acoustic guitar and mandolin, though both are sometimes buried beneath the mildly gritty, Southern rock-influenced guitar riffs added by Worley and others. Throughout the 11 tracks—all but one of which band members wrote or co-wrote—Scott’s voice proves the less potent of the two lead vocalists; Kelley’s throaty, rounded singing does better at summoning earthy emotion. But together the two have a thoroughly vibrant vocal blend.
And—the truth be told—it was nothing more historical than a shared love of full-bodied harmonies and big pop choruses that cemented Lady Antebellum’s identity in the first place.