Lady Antebellum are defining the new century’s country-pop archetype. All songwriters equipped with his or her own strengths and versatility, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott are a serendipitous co-writing session unto themselves. In fact, that’s how, and why, the three of them became a band in the first place.
Haywood, the group’s multi-instrumentalist, who also adds harmonies to Kelley and Scott’s lead vocals, recalls what they had in mind when they formed in 2006: “‘I’d rather do something else than be a part of something that we’re not writing for’ — that’s just the way we viewed it. ‘We want to write for this, we know our style, we know what we do.’”
The oft-repeated story of Lady Antebellum’s origins goes something like this: Haywood and Kelley were old friends who wrote together for fun, but had real jobs. One day, Kelley got sick of his, quit and moved in with his singer/songwriter older brother Josh Kelley in Nashville, beckoning Haywood to follow. Haywood, too, took the leap, and their songwriting commenced in earnest.
“After two months of being in Nashville, we met Hillary Scott and just asked her to come over to the house to write, really,” Haywood explained during an interview in 2008. “She came over to the house and the three of us sat down, and just for six months, wouldn’t stop writing. ‘Love Don’t Live Here’ [the band’s debut single] was the first song we wrote together.”
The trio released their eponymous first album in 2008. Fast forward two years: They’ve followed it with another album, Need You Now, and along the way, have won a Grammy and several CMA and ACM awards, including 2010 ACM Song of the Year for “Need You Now,” which they co-wrote with hit country songwriter Josh Kear.
And as great as all the performance-related honors are, you can bet that winning a major award for their songwriting meant a lot. “To be recognized for what we do feel is the main part of our career is one of the biggest and highest honors,” affirms Haywood. “I think in the back of my mind that would have been the one. If I had to pick one … it would be cool to be honored as a songwriter.”
Their songwriting has proven to have broad appeal among country listeners of varying ages — including youthful ones — and even beyond the genre. Haywood and Kelley collaborated with ACM Top New Artist winner Luke Bryan to pen his chart-topper “Do I,” while “Need You Now,” a dramatic, brooding track that bears at least a passing resemblance to Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac, has cracked the top ten in Billboard’s Hot 100 and Pop Songs charts, in addition to the country charts.
Haywood calls that a happy, yet unplanned development. “I would’ve never thought in a million years anybody on any other [format of radio] station would’ve started playing that song. I mean, that’s the honest truth. We had heard early on a few pop stations started playing it. And it was just like, ‘Really?’”
It may well be the thing Haywood identifies as a songwriting focus for the band that makes crossover possible. “We are obsessed,” he says, “with finding a great melody, that’s hopefully a memorable melody.”
To put it another way, they know their way around big pop hooks, which could also be why some of Lady Antebellum’s recent co-writing sessions — say, with neo-soul crooner John Legend, with breezy California pop singer Colbie Caillat and with American Idol judge and proven hit-maker Kara DioGuardi — have worked out just fine.
“It’s a really interesting outlet for us to be able to write with people from different genres,” Haywood observes. “But I will say, I feel like we write the same when we write with these people.”
Jewly Hight is a freelance writer based in Nashville. She is a regular contributor to American Songwriter, Relix, The Nashville Scene, Georgia Music Magazine, The 9513.com and other publications.