Lady Antebellum: The Billboard Cover Story

Mark Humphrey / AP Images
Lady Antebellum on the cover of Billboard magazine.

How's this for cultural whiplash: Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott-better-known as the country act Lady Antebellum-are calling prior to a performance at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, less than a week after rubbing designer-cloaked elbows with the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga at the 51st annual Grammy Awards. Their Grammy performance was memorably elegant, not to mention a commercial home run, but suffice to say that the Nashville-based trio feels more at home among the Wrangler set.

"The Grammys were a big moment," says Kelley, who shares lead vocals with Scott, "but we felt a bit like fish out of water with all those big-time musicians."

Outsized humility is a well-worn country-music verity, but regardless, with the release of its second album, "Need You Now," Lady Antebellum has officially joined the big-time. "Need You Now" sits atop the Billboard 200 for a second consecutive week, selling 209,000 copies one week after its head-turning 481,000-unit bow. That was the biggest country debut since Taylor Swift's "Fearless" in November 2008, and the biggest debut sales week since Susan Boyle's "I Dreamed a Dream" moved 701,000 last November.

The title-track lead single, already topping the country chart, is now moving up the pop charts as well, buoyed by the act's Grammy performance. Lady A also picked up its first Grammy that evening, taking home the trophy for best country performance by a duo or group with vocals for "I Run to You," from the group's 2008 debut.

Following the Grammys, the threesome hung around in Los Angeles long enough to see "Need You Now" shoot to No. 1, then headed back to the more familiar pastures of San Antonio. That's where the trio spoke with Billboard about the price of pop, calling mama and what roads Lady A might travel in the future.

"Need You Now" is an enormous success. Who did you call first when you heard the first-week sales news?

Hillary Scott: I called my mama.

Charles Kelley: I didn't call mine, because I don't think she has too much understanding about how many records get sold. If I were to call my Mom and say, "Guess what, we sold almost 500,000 the first week," she would say, "Well, that's just wonderful."

Dave Haywood: If you would have told her we sold 5,000 records she would have said, "Well, that's just wonderful."

Grammy performances usually rely on flash and spectacle, but your staging was rather understated. Whose idea was that?

Scott: The three of us took a look at our [Country Music Assn. (CMA) Awards] performance in November, and we really liked how that came across. We talked to our manager Gary Borman, and he recommended we get together with a really talented guy by the name of Mark Brickman. We told him our thoughts, he told us his, and we came up with something we felt good about. The actual Grammy performance was a little bit haphazard-I was almost decapitated by a curtain and a couple of other things went wrong-but, honestly, we really just wanted to make it about the song.

In retrospect, it seems a pretty smart move to drop the album right around the Grammys.

Kelley: That was just lucky timing. We had a Jan. 26 release before we even knew if we had any Grammy nominations. Sometimes the stars just align.

Scott: The reason the record wasn't out in the fall around the CMAs or Christmastime was because we were touring so much last year, and when Keith Urban calls, you go. That put the stop on making the record, but it allowed us to write a couple more songs that we wouldn't have otherwise.

The single "Need You Now" is getting pop airplay, but, lyrically anyway, it's pure country. It's a drinking song. Who wrote the line "I'm a little drunk and I need you now"?

Scott: I think [co-writer] Josh [Kear] did.

Kelley: Yes, probably Josh. I remember when it happened we had a quick moment of, "Should we say that? Oh, yeah, let's say it." It's country music-you can talk about drinking, right?

What kind of conversations do you have at Team Antebellum about crossing over to pop?

Kelley: We had no intentions of this ever crossing over. Some pop stations just started playing "Need You Now" after it had a little success at country radio. After seeing that, our record label started pursuing [pop airplay] a little more heavily, and EMI came in on it and showed a lot of support. It definitely surprised us all. We realize that the majority of our songs probably won't have that kind of cross-genre appeal; it just happens to be the appeal of this song. We're not going anywhere. We're country musicians, we write country songs. Country music as a whole is broadening its sound so much that people outside the genre are realizing there is a whole lot of great music coming out of [Nashville]. Taylor Swift opened up the door, Rascal Flatts did, Shania Twain. It's nothing new.

Your manager, Gary Borman [whose clients include Keith Urban and, until recently, Faith Hill], certainly has some experience in this arena. Can you talk about his guidance here?

Scott: We found the right man and team that we shared a vision with, that had been there before and that have worked with two of the biggest acts in country music. Coupled with our record label Capitol Nashville, its president Mike Dungan, [senior VP of promotions] Steve Hodges and the promotions and marketing staff, they are unstoppable. They've allowed us to have a voice, too. That's one thing we appreciate, because we're songwriters and we have a strong vision of who we are as artists and what we want to do.

Do you think there's a price you could pay for success on pop radio?

Scott: We haven't even thought about it. We want our music to be played to as many people as we possibly can. I hope that doesn't hurt country radio's feelings, because our relationship with them isn't going to change at all. We are going to work just as hard and continue that relationship just like we did on the radio tour two-and-a-half years ago.

Kelley: Our country audience understands that we just create the music; how it's marketed is out of our hands. To get back to that question-"Will it come at a price?"-I don't know. We've definitely thought about it, with these unexpected album sales in the last week. We know we're on the cusp of our lives changing dramatically over the next year. That's a little scary. We've enjoyed a certain amount of anonymity, so to speak, being in just the country genre. When you open yourself to the pop genre, the fans, the critics, everybody can be really harsh. We're human, and when you read certain reviews that butcher your music and they're clearly not by country fans, that definitely hurts our feelings. But this is what we dreamed about doing, and it will come with a certain price.

The new record has some songs that are hard to define, like "Hello World," which clocks in at more than five minutes. It's very mature thematically, and at that length, it doesn't seem to be destined for any kind of radio play.

Scott: That song found us. It was written by Tom Douglas, David Lee and Tony Lane, three of the greatest songwriters in Nashville. The first time I heard it, it wasn't even a pitch for us, it was just a friend saying, "You need to hear this song." I loved it, but I didn't even think about it for us.

A couple of months later we're sitting in London, Ontario, and we're missing this one song that could round out the record, not about a relationship per se, but something that has a bigger thematic message. I said, "Guys, I have something, I don't really know if you're going to hear it, but I know it's a beautiful lyric and it's a really well-written song." I played it for the guys and they flipped.

Kelley: I feel blessed to be the one to put a vocal on it. I guarantee you, if any other artist in Nashville had gotten their hands on it, they would have recorded it before us.

You've toured a lot, with some choice support slots with Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Martina McBride. You're also out with Tim McGraw this year. How do you maximize that?

Haywood: We try to learn from them, ever since our early days when we got that first tour we were ever on with Martina McBride. We've been in front of a lot of great country fans, and we owe a lot of that to all the acts we've toured with. We're going to hit the road as much as we can. We're out with Tim for 60 shows this year; we've been playing about 200 shows a year. That's what we love to do and we're going to stay out there as long as people keep coming.

You debut as a headliner next month at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Will you work any more headlining dates into an already full schedule?

Haywood: A lot of the Tim McGraw dates fall on weekends, so there are some days here and there earlier in the week where we're going to try. But it's going to be a while before we can do a big headline tour. We need to get some more songs out there and more shows under our belt. I don't think we're nearly at the level to be out there headlining, but the Ryman is a great test run for us.

Hillary, it's well-known that you grew up in a showbiz household. [Her parents are country singer Linda Davis and musician Lang Scott.] How did that prepare you for what's happening now?

Scott: I was born and raised in this industry and actually lived on the road for two years of my life. In kindergarten and first grade I'd watch school on a videotape on a tour bus. And my parents both toured with Reba McEntire for eight years, so I think I was prepared for the travel and how much we're gone. Everybody always asks what advice my Mom has given me, and she always told me, "Hillary, get enough rest and drink a lot of water."

The three of you have several of your own songs on the new record, co-written with some of the most successful songwriters in town. Is that intimidating?

Haywood: We're kind of new kids in Nashville still-especially me and Charles, we've only been there four or five years. When you sit there with Craig Wiseman, Rivers Rutherford, Monty Powell, guys that have had some of the biggest hits for some of the biggest artists in country, that is kind of intimidating. But the three of us kind of just do what we do. We love creating music and we love writing songs.

How do you foresee your music evolving?

Kelley: Only time will tell musically. I know from a live standpoint we want to up the production values as it grows, and hopefully we can get a few more hits under our belt.

Scott: I would love to get to the point where we can fill up an arena and have a show that just builds and builds. I love to go to concerts, and I'll use Beyoncé as an example. There are moments in her show that brought tears to my eyes because everything lined up so beautifully-the music, the visual, the lighting, the emotion-that it made you feel. We want to be entertainers, not just get up and sing our songs.