A Grammy Award-winning, hit-making machine, Lady Antebellum is moving full-speed ahead to deliver its next record before singer Hillary Scott delivers her first baby. But no matter how long they stay on track, this Nashville trio will avoid covering the same ground.
The country group known for lush harmonies and multi-platinum ballads such as "Need You Now" is going back to the basics with its fourth studio album, Golden, which will be released May 7 on Capitol Nashville.
Some details still need to be finalized, but Charles Kelley, the lanky lead male singer and band co-founder with Scott (who is due to give birth in July) and Dave Haywood, said there will be 11 or 12 songs. Among them is the title track the three wrote with friend and label-mate Eric Pasley over a bottle a wine in a cozy library room at Kelley's house.
"It's actually the last song we wrote for the record," Kelley said over the phone Saturday from San Antonio, where the band was looking forward to playing for the fifth year on a revolving stage before a rodeo crowd of about 30,000.
"And we just thought the title represented the record as a whole and kind of where we are as a band," Kelley added. "This nice little sweet spot as a band, and kind of getting, honestly, back to how we started with the songwriting together -- the three of us in a room." (Lady Antebellum on the new album cover, from left: Dave Haywood, Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley.)
So while several aspects of the record-making process remain the same (Paul Worley once again produced with Lady Antebellum at the Warner/Chappell studios where they made the three previous albums), Kelley said they didn't want to repeat themselves musically this time around.
Expect a more uptempo, "roll-down-your-window type of record" that's kind of a throwback which, Kelley promised, is "a little more organic and less polished."
He said the group consciously decided to take the next logical step forward by, oddly enough, going in the opposite direction. This return to their roots will include material that was influenced by Crosby, Stills and Nash, '70s bands and Southern rock anthems. So maybe for the first time on a Lady Antebellum record, no orchestral strings will be heard.
"A lot of the last singles we've been putting out have definitely been a little more serious and midtempo or ballads. So it's time for us I think .... we could sense it from our fans and radio that they were like, all right, we need to get back to the fun Lady Antebellum, like how we started," said Kelley, hoping to deliver dance-friendly tunes in the spirit of "Lookin' for a Good Time," "Love Don't Live Here" (both from their 2008 self-titled debut album) and "Our Kind of Love" from the multi-platinum Need You Now.
"I think with this whole record, just in general, we just didn't put as much pressure on ourselves," Kelley said. "And I think that's why we feel like we've finally kind of gotten back to the core of the group. We're not trying to chase a hit as much as I think we've tried in the past record or so.
"We kinda needed a little separation between 'Need You Now' and where we are right now to just get back to the core of songwriting. You know, you're not trying to write a hit song, you're just trying to write a good song."
Not that there's anything wrong with writing a title song for a 2010 album that propelled Lady Antebellum to superstar status and earned them five Grammys two years ago, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Kelley admits that was a bit like capturing lightning in a bottle, though.
"The thing is we'll probably never have a song as big as 'Need You Now,' " Kelley said when asked if Lady Antebellum ever worries about having to top themselves. "And we kinda knew that. That thing was just a time and a place and it just was definitely a moment in time for us. And it's opened up a lot of doors and after that happened we told ourselves, 'Guys, a small country band having a crossover hit like this just doesn't happen all the time.' So we try to just keep making great music and focus on the core fan base, which is country music and country fans. And if a song happens to reach outside of that, then great."
Kelley said the group wrote or cowrote about half of the songs on Golden, while bringing in some of Nashville's finest to supply the rest.
"We just got pitched some amazing songs," he said, citing "Downtown," the first single that's already reached No. 6 on Billboard"s Hot Country list and was written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird (two of the cowriters of Little Big Town's "Pontoon") and Shane McAnally. "So, yeah, we actually made an effort to find some great outside songs that stretched us. You know, I don't think we could've written a song like 'Downtown.' "
Other songwriting contributions Kelley mentioned came from Hillary Lindsey and Josh Kear.
Kear, their "Need You Now" collaborator who frequently joins Lady A on the road, cowrote a couple of songs for Golden including "Goodbye Town," Kelley's favorite on the album. "It has a lot of ebb and flow to it," he added. "It kind of goes through a lot of different emotions, ups and downs through the track."
Since there's so much down time on the road, that's where Lady Antebellum spent a lot of 2012 writing for this album before they started recording in August. A former drummer, Kelley even overcame his self-consciousness to try playing (he called it "fumbling") an acoustic guitar that appears on a track titled "I'm a Better Man." (Kelley, right, performing with Lady Antebellum in February 2012 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.)
The group also relied more heavily on a touring band that includes guitarist Jason "Slim" Gambill, who shared songwriting credits with Lady A and fellow members Jonathan Long, Dennis Edwards and ex-drummer Matt Billingslea on "Wanted You More" from 2011's Own the Night.
"This last year actually we had in our little kind of hangout room, we got a ping-pong table and a bunch of instruments spread around," said Kelley, who will pick up the paddle again for a March 23 event in Nashville for their LadyAID charity. "We would always kind of start jamming on something. Someone would just be riffing on a guitar or the piano and you'd pop in, be making a drink and the next thing you know you'd be humming something and 30 minutes later you got a song started. It was a lot of fun. I think that was kind of the coolest thing about being on the road this past year was that we wrote a lot more with our band."
Kelley, Scott and Haywood put even more time and effort into selecting and recording the songs than they did choosing the album cover, a painstaking process that wasn't decided until after this interview.
"Covers are one thing we definitely kind of stress over just because it's something that'll be out there for such a long time that we want to make sure we get it right and make sure it represents the tone of our record," Kelley said.
Lady Antebellum appreciates the enthusiasm its label and management have shown for Golden thus far, but the arrival date for the band's fourth baby is still three months away. Will it be shown as much affection as the other three?
"I think more than anything everybody can just sense that we went in and spent more time on this record and we were willing to make a bit of a change and try something different," Kelley said. "We don't want people, going into your fourth record, thinking they're gonna hear the same exact thing from us record after record. ...
"We just said, 'You know what? At the end of the day, we know we can make a great record.' Because I think fourth records are really important. I think that's when people really start either zoning out on an artist or maybe kind of getting back in the groove with them and liking to see where they go. I think if we regurgitated another record that sounded the same, we'd be taking a step back."
Looking forward to a timely delivery, this Golden opportunity for Lady Antebellum is too good to pass up.
Concert photo by Michael Bialas. See more of Lady Antebellum performing in Denver in 2012.