Lady A is usually so focused on the here and now, says Charles Kelley, that he and bandmates Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood can sometimes forget their “old friends.”
Friends like “I Run to You,” the very first in their string of 11 No. 1 songs, that features those fateful lyrics: “This world keeps spinning faster / into a new disaster.”
Performing that 13-year-old song nightly on their just-completed tour — long postponed by the latest “new disaster” — gave the trio a potent reminder that some things just don’t change despite the years. At the same time, says Kelley, 40, it was also “a reminder of how far we’ve come.”
Fifteen years have elapsed since he and Haywood, friends since middle school, found their missing piece in Scott, another aspiring Nashville singer-songwriter, to form what has become one of the most successful and enduring groups in country music. Today, after weathering the collateral impact of a global pandemic, they are more grateful than ever for their history, for each other and for the opportunity to make new music.
On Friday, they’re releasing the second half of What a Song Can Do, which completes the debut of their eighth full-length album. Kelley calls it “the most vulnerable and honest record we’ve ever made,” and Scott and Haywood don’t disagree. The reason, they say, is that they chose to embrace personal growth while they created the album and waited out the quarantine.
Scott, 35, tells how their manager helped them with the right mindset once they had to cancel their 2020 tour.
“He said, ‘Just think about who you want to be on the other side of this,'” she says. “He didn’t even say much more than that. And it was such a challenge and a great question.”
For Kelley, it led to even more questions. “I had defined so much of my life and my happiness upon the success and failure of this band,” he says, “and something about this past year and a half made me look inside and ask, who am I? What do we want to represent as a band? What kind of stake do we want to put in the ground? How do I want to define my happiness?”
The months of what Scott calls their “forced stillness” didn’t necessarily offer revelations, but it did give them clarity about what they already knew was important: family, health, charitable work — and each other. In this band marriage, Kelley, Scott and Haywood live by the “I Run to You” mantra.
“Where would I be if I didn’t have Dave and Hillary throughout this past year and a half?” says Kelley. “There were times when I was really strong and they needed help, and there were times when I was just down in the dumps and needed help.”
Of course, what most binds the three together is the music — especially of the Lady A variety. “We really are a band that’s all about just love and hoping that our music makes people feel good,” says Kelley.
Ultimately, creating new music was what sustained them most through the lengthy hiatus, says Haywood, 39. “I don’t know what we would have done without writing during that time,” he says. “We were like, all right, let’s just put our heads down and get to work, because writing music has just always been part of our DNA. Everything we all went through collectively in 2020, we just started to pour into the music. And so, it’ll be a record we never forget.”
As always, the trio exerted their harmonic magic to express a full spectrum of emotions, and the 14 tracks range from the saucy swagger of hit single “Like a Lady” to the touching generational tribute, “Things He Handed Down.”
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“Fire” offers a catchy melody with a strong shot of wisdom (“you’re only gonna find your way if you’re searching / you’re only gonna find your strength when you’re hurting”). Even deeper insights arrive with “Worship What I Hate,” a solemn and searing confessional about losing one’s way (“I gave so much time to nothing / I focused on who I was, not who I’m becoming”).
Scott, who co-wrote “Worship” with Haywood, Natalie Hemby and Amy Wadge, says those lyrics could only have grown out of the pandemic’s unexpected opportunity for reflection. “I wouldn’t have had the capacity to write it if we hadn’t walked that in this past year and a half-plus,” she says.
As much as Lady A has proven in the past that they can turn up the heat on passion, two of this album’s most romantic songs, “Be That For You” and “Workin’ on This Love,” focus far more on the steadfastness of love.
The latter song marks the first time in Lady A’s recording career that Haywood has taken lead vocals, and it’s another first, as well: He holds sole writing credit. He originally wrote the song for an audience of one; it was a Mother’s Day gift for his wife, Kelli.
“She loved the song,” Haywood says with a grin. “I feel like every year I have to find something at the mall that she doesn’t end up liking, so this went a lot better.”
Its creation, he explains, occurred during the final weeks of song selection for the album, and he decided to submit it with the thought that “maybe some fans would enjoy hearing the character and hearing a different flavor.”
Kelley and Scott recall loving the song the moment they heard it. Scott’s first thought was, “Who’d you write this with?” Kelley suspected a collaboration with Tom Douglas (co-writer of “I Run to You”). Both were floored that Haywood wrote it solo, almost an anomaly in Nashville.
There was no question for Kelley and Scott that the song was album-worthy and that Haywood’s sweet tenor would take the lead.
“It’s just such a well-written personal song,” says Kelley.
What’s taken Haywood so long for his moment in the vocal spotlight?
Country’s consummate collaborator deflects the question. “I’m good once every decade,” he deadpans, evoking laughter from both his bandmates.
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“Friends Don’t Let Friends” is yet another standout album track — a sonic party with a guest list that includes Lady A pals Darius Rucker, Thomas Rhett and Carly Pearce.
The hook was born while Kelley’s and Thomas Rhett’s families were vacationing together. “We were hanging out down at the beach, and all our kids were playing, and we both had a beer in our hands,” Kelley recalls. “He was like, ‘You know, friends don’t let friends drink alone.’ And I was like, ‘We should write that.’ And he just started spitting out the chorus.”
Rucker signed on after Kelley shared the song during one of their frequent golf dates. “Then we were like, hey, we need another strong female to balance out all of this dude power,” Kelley says, and Pearce — who just completed touring with the group — was enlisted.
“We can’t have a song called ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends,’ and them not actually be our close friends,” says Kelley. “Those three are about as close as they come. I think it’s definitely gonna be a fan favorite.”
But fans will have to wait to see the band perform it live, as well as the rest of the new music. The trio know they’ve flipped convention (album release first, then the tour), but they jumped at the chance to hit the road this summer.
“We were like, yes, let’s go,” says Kelley. “It wasn’t just big for us, but it was very big for our crew. We took care of our close band and some crew members as best we could [during the quarantine], but to have that huge operation back out there, that was a lot of the pressure we were feeling, too.”
All three bandmates are still basking in the afterglow of the live performances. “We will never take the stage for granted,” says Haywood. “You could tell it was most people’s first time back out. And you could just see it on their faces, how much fun they were having just to be back out. It felt like the most grateful moments we’ve ever had. I mean, I literally was on stage screaming, ‘Thank you, Lord! This is so fun!'”
On the final night of the tour, in Gilford, New Hampshire, the trio sat around a campfire, made s’mores and talked about their thankfulness. “The fact we could play 30 shows amidst a pandemic and pull it off is just a miracle,” says Haywood.
For Scott, the tour was exactly what she needed after the months of pandemic-created isolation. “It’s mutually shared experiences, being able to physically gather and see other people,” she says. “And it’s the power of music and what it can do. I know we’ve all suffered so much through the lack of true personal connection. The hope I’ve seen in the live show experience has been so healing, and such beautiful healing.”
Kelley also speaks of connection, but his mind turns to the band — and another “old friend” they brought along on the tour, the 2013 hit, “Compass”: “Yeah, it’s been a bumpy road / roller-coasters highs and lows.”
Those words are now, unquestionably, the story of the band. So is the chorus: “No matter what, you’ll never be alone.” Whatever the future holds, Kelley, Scott and Haywood say, they’re committed to going there together.
“We like wherever the journey takes us,” Kelley says. “Whether we’re doing theaters or clubs or some giant amphitheater, let’s just try to appreciate it — and soak it up.”