A while back at the Grammys, Charles Kelley found himself in the same room as Paul McCartney. The Lady Antebellum singer, a seven-time Grammy winner in his own right, couldn't work up the courage to say hello.
"I've got 'All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise' tattooed on my arm," Kelley said, quoting the Beatles' Blackbird. "It was my first tattoo, and I'm a huge Beatles fan, and I think the song's just so beautiful. I got it in '09, when everything was really taking off in our career. I just couldn't believe it was happening. It was like: Man, my whole life was kind of leading up to this moment."
Yeah, but which moment? Because Lady Antebellum's had some big ones.
Ten years after their first single, the harmonic, heartfelt trio is still one of modern country's most successful crossover acts, thanks to inescapable mega-ballads Need You Now and I Run to You. All six of their studio albums have reached Billboard's Top 5, including the new Heart Break. And they're in the middle of a huge global tour that hits Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Friday.
This tour, which will take Lady A as far afield as South Africa, is a complete about-face from 2016, which Kelley, co-lead singer Hillary Scott and guitarist Dave Haywood spent mostly off the road. Kelley and Scott released solo albums, but all three members have young children — "17 months old, not sleeping through the night," Kelley said of his son — and needed to recharge their collective batteries.
"It was the perfect time to give ourselves a little break and push the reset button a little bit," he said. "And an artistic break. For the past 10 years, it's just been constant — creating music, going out on tour, going right back in and creating music. It was nice to give ourselves some time to live some life and find something to write about."
Domesticity inspired Heart Break songs like The Stars, which Kelley called "our little message of inspiration" for their kids; and Army, about the spouses who make tour life possible.
"Dave and I both have pretty strong women at home that hold the fort down while we're out here living that little rock and roll fantasy," he said. "It's fun to dive into some different topics that we've never really talked about on previous records because we didn't know about it."
Another topic the band touched on for the first time: celebrity. While Lady A's individual members aren't as famous as Nashville's solo A-listers, Kelley was taken with the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, and "what fame can do, especially that level of fame." The song Famous, he said, stemmed from a conversation about the role of the consumer in a celebrity's downfall: "It's like we almost want to see them fail. I would definitely say that's probably the deepest we've ever delved into songwriting, as far as stepping outside of our box."
Which brings us back to Blackbird, the song Kelley has tattooed on his arm. That was one of the Beatles most overtly political songs, with lyrics inspired by the American civil rights movement. Songwriting like that is rare in mainstream country — so rare, Kelley said, that even the relatively harmless lyrics to Lady A's I Run to You ("I run from hate, I run from prejudice, I run from pessimists") have earned him odd looks.
"We're definitely more of a feel-good band; we've never been a huge message band," he said.
But there should be a space for topical songwriting in Nashville, he said. Just as Lady Antebellum, Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt succeeded by tapping into a thirst for a new sound, some artist will eventually come along who will put hot-button issues back on the songwriting table.
"It always goes in ebbs and flows," Kelley said. "There are definitely less story songs right now. The world is in such a divided, crazy place, people want a little bit of an escape from that. And I think country music right now is an escape from that — a positive message, or a message about just having a good time. That's maybe why you're seeing less and less of those types of songs. But as a music fan, and a songwriter, I'd like to see more of that, for sure."
Kelley grew up listening not only to the Beatles, but to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, the Eagles and the Allman Brothers Band — it's why there's still so much pop and rock in Lady Antebellum's signature sound, even a decade into their country careers.
"That's the key as artists, is you've just got to be fresh and have a little something that separates yourself," he said. "If you come in and you stay true to who you are, and connect with the fans, you can be in this genre a long time, and I think that's the beauty of it."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.