"I can only imagine what it takes to put yourself into the position of stepping away from a group like Lady Antebellum," said UMG's Mike Dungan before introducing Kelley. "I'm sure you have to wonder 'How do I come off as me, and not just one guy doing Lady Antebellum?'"
The answer to that question is pretty damn good. Kelley performed seven songs in front of a packed crowd, and due to the response, he very well might have one of the most-talked-about releases of 2016. He hit the stage with an emotional wallop of a song, "I Ain't Never Leaving Nashville," which any singer, songwriter, player, or industry professional could identify with.
Kelley then switched musical gears, heading into the uptempo territory of "I Don't Want to Live Without You," which received a strong response from the VIP-filled audience. After that, the singer answered the question that many in the industry were wondering. "I wouldn't have done this without Hillary and Dave giving me their blessing," he told the audience, in reference to bandmates Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood. "Lady Antebellum will always be my focus."
Perhaps the strongest performance of the evening was his cover of Tom Petty's "Southern Accents," which Johnny Cash also recorded on 1996's Unchained. Kelley said the lyrics of the song reminded him of his father, who sold bibles to pay his way through medical school. He excitedly told the crowd that Stevie Nicks would be adding harmonies on the recorded track of the song.
Kelley utilized the production assistance of Paul Worley for the disc, playing the producer several of the songs that he was planning to demo, and Worley told him he would produce the demos -- for free. One outside cut that will appear on the project will be "Lonely Girl," which was co-written by CMA nominee Chris Stapleton, very much a departure from Lady A with its swampy sound. He and his just-formed band rocked through a scorching cover of The Band's "Ophelia," before bringing Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley onstage for the closing song of the night, "The Driver," which he said served as the catalyst for the project. Before they started, he once again reassured his fans that his award-winning trio is still very much intact. "Lady Antebellum will never break up, mark my words. But I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone."
Kelley got his start playing music alongside brothers John and Josh in a group called Inside Blue. He met fellow Lady A member Dave Haywood in middle school, and after college, the two joined forces with Hillary Scott in 2006 to form Lady Antebellum. Their first single, "Love Don't Live Here," paved the way for future hits including "Just a Kiss," "We Owned the Night" and the 2009 crossover smash "Need You Now."
The group has won vocal group of the year three times each from both the CMAs and the ACMs. They have also tallied seven Grammy Awards. As a songwriter, Kelley has earned cuts by artists such as Hunter Hayes, Miranda Lambert and Darius Rucker, with whom he collaborated on the recent hit "Homegrown Honey."
On a personal note, Kelley is expecting his first child with wife Cassie McConnell.