Charles Kelley has always been a huge Tom Petty fan and holds a special love for the 1985 song "Southern Accents," part of an album of the same name. He says he thought the homesick ballad would make a great country song and had long wanted to cut it with his band, Lady Antebellum, but they never got the chance.
In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone Country, though, the expressive singer and native son of the South explains how an opportunity finally presented itself with his first solo project, The Driver. . . but it turned out much different than expected.
"Growing up in Georgia, it reminded me a lot of my dad," Kelley says. "He's a very spiritual person and the way he works, the way he prays, it's definitely that old-school Southern thing. So I always thought it would be a cool little homage to him."
Kelley recorded a demo version of the song in straightforward fashion and was happy with the result, but then fate intervened in the form rock legend Stevie Nicks. The Fleetwood Mac singer had become friends with Kelley and his Lady A bandmates through their CMT Crossroads collaboration and the song "Golden" — a Lady A track that spoke to Nicks so much she asked to re-record it with the trio — and during a trip to Nashville, Nicks heard Kelley was working on a solo album. After hearing the early cut of "Southern Accents" she felt inspired once again to join in, and although Kelley didn't envision his version of the song as a duet, you don't turn down Stevie Nicks.
The pair wound up at the Village Studios in Los Angeles, and their remarkable session was captured on film for a new video and intimate photo series. Coincidentally, they recorded Kelley's "Southern Accents" redo in the very same room where Petty cut his original version.
"It was pretty spooky," Kelley says. "It was one of those moments where it's like, 'Alright, we've gotta do this thing right and do him proud.'"
Nicks had also done some work at the Village (including the double album, Tusk in the midst of Fleetwood Mac's decadent heyday) and during a session that lasted from 7:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m., Kelley says she only actually sang for about an hour-and-a-half — because that was all she needed. The rest of their time together was spent deep in conversation as the free-spirit regaled him with story after story of star-crossed hookups and drug-fueled all-night recording sessions.
"She was like, 'We had all these animal tusks around and animal prints covering the studio, and this is where we would throw down the coke,'" he says with a laugh. "And as I'm drinking my Starbucks coffee, I'm thinking, 'The times sure have changed.' But just to hear those stories was so funny.
"She's really sweet, and she's a very wise person," he continues. "She's very mystical. Conversations always drift into spiritual, mystical worlds when she's talking about music and how it moves you and the colors of it. It's very much what you would think Stevie Nicks would talk about, but on the flip side, we'll have a 30-minute conversation about how much she loves her dog and how she was watching something like The Voice and talking about Adam [Levine] and Blake [Shelton], very normal things. But man, she's still Stevie Nicks."
Around midnight, Kelley says Nicks found a creative spark and the song took off, with her entering as a ghostly voice in the second verse, all about a recurring dream the narrator has of his mother.
"She became very opinionated in a good way, like, 'This is how I want it to sound,' so it was cool to see her take some pride in it," he says. "She was talking about picking takes and how it's not always about the perfect note, it's about the emotion. She has a thing and she knows what her thing is. And she does it so well."
In the end, Kelley says the track helped pull The Driver together. After getting the final mix, he played the desolate, haunting track for his wife, Cassie, whose smile was all he needed to see.
"I was in the [Driver] project for so long and was very self-conscious about it," he says, "so to have my wife be like, 'This is really special,' I was really proud."