“We’re the most rock & roll band in the universe right now,” proclaimed Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley sarcastically as he, dressed as a human beer barrel complete with beer stein headpiece, performed an acoustic version of the band’s chart-topping single “Bartender” at the song’s Halloween-themed Number One party Wednesday. At the City Winery in Nashville alongside bandmates Hillary Scott (in a glitter tophat) and Dave Haywood (sporting a shirtless version of Kelley’s outfit, with an additional mullet wig and glasses) as well as Scott’s young daughter, Eisele, in a pig costume, it certainly wasn’t the most rebellious, guitar-smashing moment in history. But the trio has been pushing boundaries of late — if not this very moment.
“We wanted the first two singles to be complete left turns,” a pre-costumed Kelley told Rolling Stone Country in an exclusive chat about “Bartender,” which topped the Country Airplay chart, and its wild follow-up single, “Freestyle.” “We had songs like those before, like ‘Love Don’t Live Here,’ but we’d kind of gotten away from it, and thought it was time to reel it back and inject more fun.”
“In the live show environment,” added Scott, “everything is outdoor, festival culture. So fun, uptempo songs are what people are gravitating towards.” The trio, who will preform at next week’s CMA Awards and have a shot at the Vocal Group of the Year trophy, will announce plans for their world tour soon — and their newfound, freewheeling spirit has transformed the band that came to prominence by belting booty-call ballads into one fit for dancing (it’s a quarter after one… and I’ll see you at the club!). So in a county environment that favors party anthems, did they feel pressure to turn it up a notch?
“Maybe,” Kelley answers, “But what we kept saying when we went in to record was that we didn’t want to follow any trends — but we did want to stay relevant. And how can you we stay relevant on our own terms and also stay true to the band?”
On 747, there are those moments — namely the power-ballad title track and introspective love song “One Great Mystery,” which Kelley assures will be the tone of the next single. “I pretty much can guarantee that the next one we put out will have a little bit more meat to it,” he says.
The trends they have embraced on this record — pop lines, aggressive beats — are hot enough topics on the country landscape, as artists like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt toy with genre boundaries at the same time Sturgill Simpson erects them back up, and Taylor Swift flees Nashville for New York. But they’ve been victims of the “are they country enough” conversation for years, since their breakthrough single “Need You Now” took the Grammy Awards and the charts by storm.
“Since the beginning of country,” says Kelley, “they were debating on Kenny Rogers being too pop and then Rascal Flatts, too, but now you listen to Rascal Flatts and they sound like traditional country. In order for us as country artists to not be replicating the past and sound like we’re just piggy backing, we have to constantly push ourselves. And so the genre, just naturally, will always evolve.”
For all its playfulness, “Bartender,” co-written with Rodney Clawson, does infuse traditional country instrumentation — a core element of everything Lady Antebellum does, often led by Haywood’s vision. “We always like to have a steel guitar or a mandolin or banjo in there,” he said. “It’s always been our sound.”
“It doesn’t mean there isn’t always room for your George Straits and Josh Turners,” added Kelley before the band was whisked away to change into their costumes for the plaque presentation, “but there will be extremes all around. Genre lines are blurring.”