Lady Antebellum was one of the toasts of country music throughout the 2000s. They racked up numerous #1 hits, including one mega hit in “Need You Now” that crossed over to pop radio, and collected their fair share of awards at the CMA Awards, ACM Awards and even a couple of Grammys. They were a pretty hot group at one point near the top of the country music food chain. Then bro country came along and derailed this soccer mom friendly act. They simply couldn’t keep up with the likes of Florida Georgia Line. Of course they tried with a terrible song like “Bartender,” one of the first songs I outright hated from the group. Now they’re on a hiatus, probably the best thing for a group that has gotten lost in the shuffle.
This leads us to one of three members of Lady A, Charles Kelley. It felt he had gotten lost in the shuffle within the group in recent years, as more songs from the group were centered around Hillary Scott. In the earlier days of the group, it seemed like Scott and Kelley would shift back and forth between being the lead in songs. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Kelley has now set out to make music as a solo artist. With Lady Antebellum on hiatus, this is a perfect opportunity to do something different. It’s already off to a great start, as the lead single from it, “The Driver,” has been nominated for Best Country Duo/Group Performance at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards. Not bad, huh? It also gave him the much-needed momentum to release his debut album of the same name, which was rumored to be delayed indefinitely after the single stalled at radio at first. So does The Driver deliver as well as the lead single? Well it’s a mixed bag.
The upbeat “Your Love” kicks The Driver off. It’s your standard pop country love song, complete with the electric guitar riffs. Kelley sings about how he compares his love for his woman to the sun and other typical tropes. It’s not a bad song, but there’s nothing that stands out about it either. Next is the album’s title track and lead single. I’ve already covered the Grammy-nominated song when it first came out. From my original review of “The Driver”: I have to say this song is a real pleasant surprise. In fact after my first listen I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “The Driver” is pretty good and has real sincerity about it. This starts with the acoustic guitar that opens the song and maintains a presence throughout the album. An electric guitar also joins it and gives the song an earthy, singer-songwriter vibe about it. It feels and sounds like something that belongs on country radio. The song itself (written by Kelley, Eric Paslay and Abe Stoklasa) is a feel good sing-a-long about traveling around on the road and making music. So it’s only appropriate that Kelley is also joined on the song by Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley. They harmonize in the chorus and it’s just fantastic.
“Dancing Around It” is Kelley’s attempt at the R&B/metro country sound that is popular right now. The drum machines and synth make this pretty evident. Overall everything about this song sounds weak, from the lifeless production to Kelley’s falsetto. It’s the perfect song to play in the lines at DMVs across America. The great Stevie Nicks joins Kelley on “Southern Accents,” one of two duets on the album. The song is about being a proud southerner and his southern accent. While the song could have gone about this better, it does a solid job of getting the point across. Nicks works well with the song and sounds great in her older age. The production is the best part of the song, as it’s softer with a combination of a piano, electric guitar and surprising amount of steel guitar.
Kelley embraces the R&B/metro country sound again on “Lonely Girl.” The song of course is about a guy professing that this girl is the only one for him and how she should never be lonely. It’s all just quite fascinating. The production is straight up weird, as its Bruno Mars meets Ed Sheeran. Considering how so many mainstream acts are ripping off these two pop artists, it’s no surprise we finally get a song that rips off both of their styles. As a country song, it’s terrible. As a pop song, it’s catchy and mindless fun, so expect this to be Kelley’s next single. The love ballad “The Only One Who Gets Me” is next. It’s the kind of roots-influence rock song that is easy to get behind. The production is subtle enough to let Kelley’s voice shine, but also strong enough to catch your attention and add to the song. The songwriting is solid, even if a little unspectacular. “Round in Circles” is another pop country with too much pop and not enough country from Kelley. It’s basically a more hook-up-y version of Brothers Osborne’s “Stay A Little Longer” with worse production and vocals. I don’t really have much of a feeling on this song because it puts me to sleep. Of course it’s this cookie-cutter, neutral music that just dazzles label executives and car commercial makers.
The second duet of the album is “I Wish You Were Here,” where Kelley is joined by Miranda Lambert. It’s arguably the best song of the album, as the song is about a man travelling on the road all the time for work and wishing every step of the way his woman was there with him. This is another song that surprises me with the amount of pedal steel guitar in it. Lambert sounds great and goes perfect with Kelley. This song represents the best Kelley can offer and something that I wish I could say about every song on this album. The Driver ends with “Leaving Nashville,” a piano-driven ballad about living in Nashville as an artist and the struggles that come with it. These struggles can be things like everyone wanting to be your friend and wanting a favor to struggling to pay your bills. But despite all of this, Kelley vows to never leave Nashville and give up on living the dream of being an artist. It’s nice to hear a song like this from a bigger name highlighting the struggles a musician goes through when you’re not one of the biggest names. As Kelley sings in the final line, “One day you’re the king and the next you’re not.”
The Driver is an album where you take the good with the bad. When Charles Kelley is at his best on this album, you can really enjoy it and marvel at his singing voice. He shows he has talent and can stand out as a solo artist. But at Kelley’s worst on The Driver, he sounds just like another artist and another song. It’s pretty easy to pinpoint where exactly Kelley is pandering on this album. So I guess it makes it quite easy what you should avoid. I’ve heard debut albums much worse and much better than this one. It’s worth at least one listen through for yourself and definitely would suit you if you’re a fan of Lady Antebellum. The Driver is the true definition of a 50/50 album.