Lady Antebellum: On Heels of No. 1 Album, Charles Kelley Talks Crossover Success (Q&A)

1:25 PM PST 09/22/2011 by Andy Eiser
Williams + Hirakawa
From left: Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood

One-third of the Grammy-winning country band shares his thoughts on radio, this summer's spate of stage collapses and how talent shows are "a brilliant concept."

Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum knows how to celebrate a month's worth of milestones. The Augusta, Ga., native turned 30 on Sept. 11, and that night his country trio sang The Star-Spangled Banner for a national TV audience before the New York Jets’ emotional NFL home opener against the Dallas Cowboys. Two days later, Lady Antebellum’s third album, Own the Night, hit stores, and on Sept. 21, it was crowned No. 1 on the Billboard 200 on first-week sales of 347,000 units.  

On the eve of the album’s release, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Kelley about the band’s growth, stardom and tremendous accolades, which include having won five Grammy Awards earlier this year for the radio smash, “I Need You Now” (among them: Record of the Year and Song of the Year).

Five years since he and bandmates Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood formed Lady A in Nashville, the group is bigger than ever and soon to launch an arena tour. Where do they go from here? The only way is up. Kelley fills us in...

The Hollywood Reporter: Judging by its sales, Own the Night is clearly resonating with fans. Do you have a favorite track?

Charles Kelley: It’s between “Dancin' Away With My Heart” and “Cold As Stone.” I tend to gravitate toward ballads and mid-tempo songs.
 
THR: Are you conscious of a pop/country balance when writing or picking songs?

Kelley: We don’t really think too much about that. We’re thinking, “Is this the best song we have?” We try to pick the best material, but you can’t please everybody. You can tell a lot of our fans love the more country-sounding songs, and others gravitate toward the contemporary stuff. It’s kind of like: “Here’s what we came up with. Take it or leave it.” We just try to stay true to us as a band.

THR: Is there a pop song no one would predict that you or the band likes?

Kelley: I’m a real fan of that Foster the People song “Pumped Up Kicks.” I bought their new record and thought it was pretty cool. I’m really into the Parachute Band record, too; they’re a new up-and-coming band.
 
THR: Lady A has appeared on American Idol multiple times, The X Factor just debuted this week. If you didn’t have a record deal, would you have tried out for a TV talent competition?

Kelley: It’s a possibility. Luckily, when I went to Nashville, it wasn’t long after that I met Hillary. We were really fortunate, everything started coming together really quick. But I do think if I was there for a year or two, and nothing was happening, I would have probably given it a shot. I think it gives a lot of people a great opportunity who might otherwise not have the chance or know how to go about it. A lot of is being in the right place at the right time. There’s a good chance I would have auditioned.
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THR: What do you think is the appeal of such shows?

Kelley: I think it has put things more in the fans’ hands. They get to decide what they want to listen to. It’s almost taking the guesswork out for the labels, which is good. It’s like: “Here are 15 artists we may want to sign. Which one do you think we should?” I think it’s a pretty brilliant concept.

THR: You’re launching your first arena headlining tour this year. With all the stage collapses from this past summer, are you relieved to be performing indoors?

Kelley: We’re excited. We’re doing small arenas. Next year, we’ll do large arenas and extend the tour. But we’re going to be out there with our unique custom-made stage, with a lot more bells and whistles and lighting effects. But we still love the energy of the fairs and festivals.

THR: You were scheduled to play the Indiana State Fair, where seven lost their lives when the Sugarland stage collapsed, but canceled. Are you exploring increased safety measures for future outdoor shows?

Kelley: Sometimes it takes things like that to happen to be a little more cautious. I feel we’re already pretty cautious about that, but it’s not just about our safety -- it’s all the fans’. Everyone’s going to need to give it more thought. I’m definitely going to think about it when heavy winds start coming in. With all the stuff hanging over our heads when we perform, I’ll think about jumping off the stage before it gets bad.

THR: With Taylor Swift’s success, and certainly your own, country music has truly crossed over. Where do you think Nashville stands in the industry right now?

Kelley: There’s more recognition, it seems. You have a lot of bands, not just country artists -- like Kings of Leon -- that are based out of there. I love the area in general but Nashville was a huge reason for our success early on. We started getting out there and trying to develop a buzz in town. We became close friends with a lot of publishers and labels when we were trying to decide which label to be a part of. I feel like the whole town, not just our label, got behind us. I don’t feel that same connection with Los Angeles. I like [Nashville] as much more of a hometown -- everybody helping each other out as a community. It’s much more about the music, and I think that’s unique to Nashville.
 
THR: Why do you think the rest of America is gravitating towards country music?

Kelley: The main reason, honestly, is we’re starting to see songs on Top 40 radio that are so dance-club-heavy and beat-heavy that you don’t have many rock songs playing. I feel like fans who like old Southern rock and country, and more lyric-driven songs in general, have come to country radio. I think that’s why you see country radio growing and albums selling: People are craving a little more of the singer-songwriter stuff going on in country.
 
THR: Maybe the economic times also have something to do with that?

Kelley: Yeah, maybe a little bit. But also, radio used to be dominated by Tom Petty and artists like that. If Tom Petty came out today, he’d be played on country radio -- all that stuff would. I think the genre has opened itself up to more styles of country, and I think that’s a good thing.

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