In "The Driver," released to radio through Play MPE on Oct. 5, Kelley, Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley each take a separate verse as they pay homage to the spiritual power of music, peeking behind the curtain at the start by tipping a figurative hat to the unheralded bus drivers who literally keep the show on the road.
The Highwaymen -- Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson -- took a similar one-man/one-verse approach to the Jimmy Webb-penned "Highwayman," a song that embraces the spiritual concept of reincarnation.
Browne, meanwhile, provided his own backstage pass in "The Load Out," a piano-driven ballad that paid homage to roadies ("They're the first to come, and the last to leave/Workin' for that minimum wage"), capturing the offstage boredom and onstage fulfillment of an arena-sized tour.
"I wanted to kind of try to write with more of an artist's purpose -- not necessarily worried about if it was going to appeal on a commercial level," says Kelley of "The Driver" and the other music that will comprise his first solo project. "Of course, you want that [kind of acceptance], but I knew this was my chance to not chase it, and just see if something commercial could come out of something not commercial."
"The Driver" fits that description. It's a glimpse at road life from people who know it well, and it's delivered as a waltz, a time signature rarely heard in modern commercial country.
"Being on the road, I just thought it would be awesome to write a song for everybody behind the scenes -- all the crew and stuff -- and the trick then was, how do you make it relatable to the audience?" says Kelley. "You don't want it so inside that it's hard for the fans to relate to the song."
He had the opening lines -- "I'm the driver/Bringing this circus to town/First one in and the last rolling out" -- and a bit of a melody, and he threw that out on a gray fall day a year ago during a songwriting session at his Nashville home. Kelley wanted the song to go deep, and co-writers Paslay and multi-instrumentalist Abe Stoklasa shared his appreciation for the unsung road warriors.
"They're equally important as anybody else that you see on the stage," says Stoklasa. "We thought the driver best summed that up, because you never see him and he's always working when everyone's sleeping."
As they put that role into the bigger picture, they decided to let each verse look at the concert from a different lens. Thus, the functional driver in verse one gives way to the fan in search of inspiration in the second verse, and to the artist conveying his soul in the final stanza.
"In a sense, the singer in the third verse is also the other two," adds Stoklasa. "He's the dreamer and the believer, and he's probably been the driver in a band with a trailer at some point, and you just don't do those things unless you love it and need it in your life. It's too hard otherwise."
That sense of community and connection in the lyrics also filtered into the musical treatment. It's the kind of song that invites a singalong at the chorus.
"It totally sounds like an Irish pub song," says Paslay. "I love that music; it's so easy to sing along to. Right now as I'm singing it, I'm swinging my hand back and forth. You can't help but have one of those giant mugs and swing it back and forth -- with apple juice if your mom is watching and beer if your girlfriend is. It's just a fun thing to sing along to. It adds a timeless value to it."
"The Driver" was originally written as a song for Kelley to sing solo, but as they built the work tape, they decided that each of them would take a verse. Just a few weeks later, Kelley caught up with Lady A's former producer, Paul Worley (Martina McBride, Dixie Chicks), and mentioned that he had some songs he wanted to record, though the purpose wasn't clear at the time. Worley offered his studio, Shabby Road, as a venue and said he wouldn't charge a fee upfront. Kelley paid the musicians from his own pocket and thus had complete artistic control.
"We didn't even call it a 'project,' " says Worley. "He just wanted to make some music. It was a good time for him to just sort of express himself, and we didn't know if anything would happen to it or not. But we weren't going to think about that."
The iPhone work tape was all they had to go by. Kelley thought it would be a song with a wall of folky acoustic guitars, but when Jerry McPherson came up with a lonesome electric riff for the start, it changed the direction. Guitarist Mark Trussell added an effect that hints at a string section in the background, and the musicians fell in line as the song went down, keeping the embellishments to a minimum.
"On that song in particular, there are no instrumental overdubs," says Worley. "That's what was played on the floor, including the -guitar solos, everything."
The three writers each took their original verse, and Kelley sang a loud, off-the-cuff line -- "Here we aaaaare" -- that sets up the final chorus. They were proud of the work, but Kelley had already been talking to Bentley periodically about how country needed a new version of The Highwaymen. So he invited Bentley to take over Stoklasa's last verse. Obviously, Bentley said yes.
"From the driver pulling the bus into the gig, the fans, the dreamers, it's really inclusive of the circus we are all a part of," says Bentley. "I thought it really just had that classic-song sound, like one of those songs that will be around for a long time."
Stoklasa wasn't at all offended -- "That gave the song so much more legs," he says -- and some of his harmony parts are still on the end product. Bentley, meanwhile, took the role seriously. So seriously, in fact, that after he heard a rough mix, he asked if he could come back and resing it. His part effectively cements all of the song's cosmic intent.
"I've always thought of a concert as a spiritual kind of thing," says Bentley. "Transformation of energy from the singer to the crowd, [from] the crowd back to the singer. It's quite amazing what happens over the course of two hours."
Universal Music Group Nashville came to the table when Kelley started shopping the music, and while another song, "Lonely Girl," seemed a more obvious choice for a single, "The Driver" was more aligned with the project's emotional core. "This isn't about any agenda or strategy," says Kelley. "It's just what we think is the most special song, and [we] put it out there."
After an Oct. 13 performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, "The Driver" debuted at No. 41 on Hot Country Songs. It rests at No. 43 in week two. Appropriately, "The Driver" now becomes a communal experience, much like the concert it celebrates.
"If Charles had cut it by himself, it would have been mind-blowing," says Paslay, "but to let us share that spotlight with him says a lot about his character and about his confidence as a singer. I'll never look back and regret being a part of this."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.