Johnny Cash's bullfrog hymns. Waylon Jennings' last-call plea. Garth Brooks' urban cowboy baritone. Country music's past is fat with unique voices syrup-pouring out of thick, ugly skulls. Country's present, however, is a different story. Handsome boys Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban can sing and sell for sure — but their vocals would never make you do a double take.
Country radio is a folksy, hook-driven place these days, but it's desperately lacking in character-rich voices, especially on the dude side of things. So the first time I heard Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley — on the band's 2007 hit Love Don't Live Here — cranking from my car stereo, it was like a holy revelation. I darn near swerved off I-275.
Soft-growling "Well this heart of mine / Has been hardened like a stone" — the very first line off the trio's very first album, a self-titled debut that sold more than a million copies — Kelley sounded like a blue-eyed soulster who had wandered into the wrong place. In other words: He stood out.
The brother of pop singer Josh Kelley (a.k.a. Mr. Katherine Heigl), Charles Kelley initially reminded me of Raul Malo, former front man of the Mavericks, current nominee for one of the best singers around. Kelley should be a solo star, but for now, he'll have to settle for being the best part of the hottest group in Nashville.
Today, Lady Antebellum releases its sophomore album, Need You Now. The title track has already gone No. 1, selling a million downloads — and with good reason. A duet between Kelley and the band's female star, Hillary Scott, Need You Now is a mid-tempo portrayal of being drunk, randy and wistful. Scott is a borderline talent, a Kmart Natalie Maines. But Kelley easily steals the show, his Wild Turkey lower register inducing chills.
Alas, that song is Kelley's best showcase on the album, which is woefully lacking in those swerve-off-the-road moments. Maybe I'm greedy, but I wish Lady Antebellum weren't such a democracy. It seems to think Scott is as big a talent as Kelley. She's not. Second single American Honey features Scott reminiscing about her salad days. It's flat — cloying, even. Lady Antebellum (which also features Dave "the Other Guy") Haywood writes its own stuff, building harmonies and acoustic melodies a la Little Big Town or Sugarland. What's with all the sharing?!
Kelley does have a few keeper moments, although for some reason he forgoes chasing that million-dollar note. The solemn Hello World and If I Knew Then build to emotional finishes. And he shows an aggressive side on populistic party cut Stars Tonight. Still, this guy is so good, you have to figure his best days are ahead of him — as a solo star knocking 'em dead on his own.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs Sundays in Floridian.