When touring ceased during the COVID-19 shutdown, artists found themselves with more free time than they’d had in years. Lady A’s Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott embraced the moment by consuming themselves with creating new music. The result is What a Song Can Do (Chapter One), which came out June 25 via BMLG Records and is the trio’s first new album since 2019’s Ocean.
“When we started writing, we all had no idea how long we were going to be in the pandemic and not being able to do much other than stay at home and write, so we just put our heads down, worked through this music and wrote a ton,” Haywood tells Billboard during a Zoom call with Kelley and Scott. “We wrote 50-60 songs almost like we did for our debut record in 2006.”
Their goal was to “be productive, really gather together our thoughts and feelings around what’s happening in the world and how we feel and what we’re going through,” Scott says. “All of that really got poured into this collection of songs.”
The album’s opening track, “Talk of this Town,” written by Haywood, Kelley and Scott with Nicolle Galyon and Jordan Reynolds, looks at what it feels to be the topic of conversation, whether it’s gossip about a relationship or other issues and, more obliquely, refers to “sort of the things [the band] went through last year,” Haywood says.
Haywood is referring to the controversy that erupted last year when the group changed their name from Lady Antebellum to Lady A to move away from the association the word “antebellum” has with with the pre-Civil War era and slavery. The name change led to a lawsuit involving blues singer Anita White, who also performs as Lady A.
“It’s all about trademark rights, so we’re just letting our lawyers figure it all out,” Kelley says, “but it’s been a very interesting process for sure, eye-opening and tough, but I think we’re stronger for it. You learn and grow so much in tough times. Just COVID in general this whole year has taught us that, but we’re as close as we’ve ever been as a band, more purposeful and more determined to just really show that message of love and support for everyone.
“That’s who we are, and anyone who has ever known us from the beginning knows that. It was just our small way of setting an example for our genre and our kids that we want to be a part of the change,” Kelley continues. “Our intention from day one was to send a message of love and change. People kind of got our intentions twisted a little bit here and only time will show them where our hearts are in this.”
Scott and Haywood agree. “We’re going to continue taking steps moving forward too to continue the cause of equality and having these conversations,” Scott adds. “We’re still learning. We will always be learning and we’re hopeful. We really are.”
(In May, a federal judge denied White’s motion to dismiss the band’s declaratory judgment action against the Pacific Northwest-based singer and her request to transfer the suit from Middle Tennessee to Washington State. White responded: “I respect the court’s decision and I am ready to move forward with defending my trademark rights in Tennessee.”)
Writing the new album helped the trio codify “what we want to stand for moving forward to as a band. [We want] our music to have kind of a deeper meaning and message behind it,” Kelley says. The title track represents that message. “That’s why we named [the album] that, but [it’s also about] what this music has done for us. It’s taken us places we never thought we would ever be, but also with music in general, it’s about what other people’s music has done for us and how music is such a healing thing.”
Though the group has built a successful career over the past 15 years by delivering meaty, full-length albums, What a Song Can Do (Chapter One) serves up just seven songs. “It’s the first chapter of two, so when the next chapter comes out, it will be a complete album,” says Scott. No release for the second half has been set.
“I know everybody is making these double records and stuff, even my favorite artists are, but I can’t consume that much music and wrap my head around a project that big. I’m good for about six or seven songs,” Kelleys says, thinking their fans might also enjoy the music in smaller, digestible bites. “It was like, ‘What if we put this out in like seven-song sections and then someone gets to dig really deep in these seven songs and then just when they are bored, we’ve got a next seven songs coming out, but it will be a part of a full collection,’” Kelley says.
Dann Huff produced both chapters, and Haywood says they worked with the same musicians in tracking both sets. Lead single “Like a Lady” stands at No. 25 with a bullet this week on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
“Lady” is an infectious slice of ear candy, but most of the songs on What a Song Can Do (Chapter One) dive much deeper into the feelings the trio has experienced the past year, including album closer “Worship What I Hate,” which is about the ways we check out on life and do the things we don’t want to do,” Haywood says.
Penned by Haywood, Scott, Natalie Hemby and Amy Wadge in September, the emotionally charged song “started from all of us really kind of giving an honest account of where we all were at that point,” says Scott. “We’d all kind of sunk into what life was and how different it was looking, drinking too much, trying to be parents and teachers, just feeling buckled under the pressure of it all.”
Scott says they began talking about society’s obsession with perfectionism “because of all of the filters on our phones and just blaming ourselves and focusing on the things that aren’t really serving us. That was the greater message and I really think it’s a redemptive song in the long run because you’re catching it and you can change [and] focus on who you can be instead of who you’ve been.”
The song also serves as a reminder to be present in one’s own life. “There’s nothing worse than having your child come over to you and be like, ‘Mom, Mom, Mom!’ and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what did I miss?’ It’s honestly a song that holds me accountable now,” Scott says.
As to whether it will be a single, the trio doesn’t know yet but are hopeful. “We really, really want it to be heard because I think we can all put ourselves in the message,” Haywood says.
Lady A is looking forward to performing songs from the new set live. After a few warm-up shows at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, Lady A will kick off the What a Song Can Do tour on July 29 in Uncasville, Conn., with Carly Pearce, Niko Moon and Tenille Arts joining the group on the 34-city amphitheater run.
“Once we get through the nerves and excitement, I think there will be some tears, especially that opening night, just remembering the journey we’ve all gone through to get to that point,” Haywood says.
A portion of proceeds from the tour will go to Lady Aid, the group’s philanthropic fund, which supports a variety of charitable endeavors. The Academy of Country Music will recognize the trio for its good works as recipients of the Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award during the ACM Honors on Aug. 25.