It's hard to overlook Charles Kelley. At six-foot-six, he's literally one of the biggest men in country music, with a super-sized voice to match. Ever since Grammy-nominated single "The Driver" kicked off his solo career last September, though, Kelley has been reintroducing himself, hoping to carve out a reputation not only as a member of Lady Antebellum, but as a singer who can work the stage on his own. His debut album The Driver will be released on February 5th.
"People have been asking me, 'You're putting out a solo album, so why would you introduce it with a song featuring two other people?'" he says, referencing the pair of duet partners — Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley — who join him on the record's title track. "And I did it because that song is about the past eight years of my life. It's about all this respect I have for the people who drive the tour buses, buy the tickets and work behind the scenes. It's probably counterintuitive to come out with a solo record and release a song that's actually a collaboration, but to me, that represents everything about this project. It's a very counterintuitive project. Because why would you even do a solo record when your band's not broken up? No one does that."
Working alone does have its perks. With Hillary Scott recording a gospel album and Dave Haywood ramping up his work as a producer, Kelley can be the captain of his own ship, steering The Driver into territory not often explored with Lady Antebellum. The record's biggest outliers are "Lonely Girl," a bright burst of Hall & Oates-inspired funk, and "Leaving Nashville," a stark, stunning ballad about a songwriter who's unwilling to leave the town that both inspires and bankrupts him.
There's also a cover of Tom Petty's "Southern Accents," reimagined as a duet with honorary Heartbreaker Stevie Nicks (who also became something of a mentor to Lady Antebellum after filming an episode of CMT Crossroads with the band). Most of the remaining songs find Kelley in a beautifully bummed-out mood, ruminating on an industry that takes its biggest stars away from home for months at a time. It's intimate, introspective stuff — the sort of music that would lose its strength if delivered by three vocalists — and if The Driver still shares some musical DNA with Lady Antebellum, it's likely because Kelley turned to co-writer Abe Stoklasa for four of the album's nine tracks.
"This is just Charles Kelley making a record. If it's crappy, it's not gonna wreck the band"
"The dude's amazing," Kelley gushes of Stoklasa, a former member of Billy Currington's touring band who wrote one of Lady A's strongest hidden gems, "Lie With Me." "He's the best singer in the world, and I think we've both found a musical counterpart in each other. Right now, in a weird way, he's kind of like my Bernie Taupin. I don't wanna compare ourselves to those legends, but he's inspiring me to write songs I love."
Although never released in America as a single, "Lie With Me" pointed Kelley, Scott and Haywood toward something new: a place where modern country and classic pop overlapped. With Stoklasa riding shotgun, The Driver goes back to that intersection.
"We should've put that song out," he admits now. "We still talk about that a lot. It's the one that got away. Maybe we were afraid of releasing a song that was a little left-of-center from where country music seemed to be at. And maybe, if I'm being honest with myself, that's why I wanted to do this project. I wanted to make music that spoke to me, without having the expectation of success that comes with Lady Antebellum. This is just Charles Kelley making a record. If it's crappy, it's not gonna wreck the band. It's not like David Lee Roth going solo, where it's David fucking Lee Roth! With Charles, it's like, 'Who the fuck is Charles Kelley?'"
The modesty is genuine. Kelley admits that not all of Lady Antebellum's fans have immediately embraced his solo work, and some of them don't even seem to recognize his name. It's been humbling. Last year, he scrapped his first-ever tour as a solo star. No official reason was given for the cancellation, but it's safe to assume that Kelley was having a hard time filling those venues alone, without anything more than radio songs to back him up. Some of those dates have since been rescheduled, but others remain in the trashcan, a sign of a solo career that, no matter how promising, is still in the construction stage.
"I remember when Lady Antebellum first started touring," he says. "It was Hillary, Dave and I all splitting the same room, and one of us would sleep on the floor, and one of us would share the bed with Hillary. It was always, like, 'Who's gonna share the bed with Hillary tonight? Don't get too close.' You know, all these funny little things.
"Then you go play a show and everyone's grabbing a drink during your slower songs, and you think, 'Listen to this song, man!'" Kelley continues. "I'm realizing I'm going to be fighting some of those same battles again, on my own this time. And that's been humbling, but also exciting."