Charles Kelley on Solo Career, ‘The Driver’ and David Lee Roth
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.