In this age of “Young Country” radio and 'round-the-clock videos on country television, it helps to be youthful and attractive. Even so, if you don't have the chops or the tunes, you're probably not going to get very far. The new Nashville group Lady Antebellum (“Lady A” for short) is a band that seems tailor-made for these times. They are young and good-looking, eager and enthusiastic; they have some pedigree; and they play a very appealing mix of country, rock and soul-influenced tunes. Their new self-titled debut album is already creating quite a buzz: The first single, “Love Don't Live Here,” has been getting heavy airplay and was named Single of the Week on iTunes in mid-March — a slot that goes to a country song just four times a year. The group is up for Top New Group at the 2008 Academy of Country Music Awards, to be held on May 18, and they've been tagged by everyone from Billboard to The Boston Globe to Clear Channel radio as one of the Faces to Watch for 2008. Not bad for a group of 20-somethings with very little music business experience.
Twenty-one-year-old singer/songwriter Hillary Scott is the one with the pedigree: Her mother is country singer Linda Davis, who enjoyed a number of hits in the '90s and earned a Best Country Vocal Collaboration Grammy with Reba McEntire for “Does He Love You.” Davis is still recording, too: Young At Heart, an album of standards, was released in 2007. Scott's father is a musician, too: Lang Scott played in Davis' band back in the day and produced Young At Heart.
The other two members of Lady A — singer/songwriter Charles Kelley and multi-instrumentalist/harmony singer Dave Haywood — have known each other since middle school in Augusta, Ga. Both also studied finance at the University of Georgia, but left that world behind when they moved to Nashville to try to make it in music. Meanwhile, Scott was honing her songwriting chops working with Victoria Shaw (who has penned songs for many artists, including Number One hits for Garth Brooks, Doug Stone and John Michael Montgomery).
The trio originally hooked up in the summer of 2006 after admiring each other's music on MySpace, and the chemistry was instant and palpable. They immediately began writing songs together (aided by Shaw), then started playing around Nashville clubs, enlisting a few other musicians to supplement the trio, which featured Scott and Kelley trading off on lead vocals and singing stirring duets, and Haywood providing solid support with his harmonies and guitar work.
Lady A (L-R): singer/songwriters Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott, singer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood.
It didn't take long for the word to get around. At a showcase gig at the Nashville club 3rd & Lindsley, noted country producer Paul Worley was very impressed. “I walked in and saw them play, and song after song after song was really good,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘Holy cow! Who are these guys?’ 'Cause you're lookin' at these kids who are fresh-faced and young and green in so many ways, but it was also obvious that they had something special.” Worley knows a thing or two about great country music and young bands. The producer/guitarist has helmed dozens of albums, including formative works by Highway 101, Desert Rose, Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, Trace Adkins and many others. Lady A snagged a deal with Capitol Nashville and Worley agreed to co-produce with Shaw, who had already been guiding the band through its growing stages.
Worley comments, “Victoria helped put the group together — helped them hone their songs, put their set list together and co-wrote a lot of the songs — so by the time I came onto the scene, she'd already been there for half a year — maybe longer — with the group, so that was invaluable. We worked together very well. She is so gracious a person and we've been fans of each other for a long time. She was willing to let me show her some things, and her history with the group was so much longer than mine she was able to clue me in on how the personalities flowed.”
When it came time to record the group's album, the studio choice was a natural: For the past couple of years, Worley has operated mostly out of Warner Bros. Studio on Music Row. The building was originally the home of Monument Records, then went through successive incarnations as a small demo studio for MTM and then Warner Chappell Publishing, which moved its offices across the street and then remodeled the building with the expectation of eventually setting up a nice studio. When AOL Time Warner sold off the Warner Music Group, there were many jobs lost and the space lay fallow for a couple of years.
“Then Paul [Worley], who was a VP at Warner Bros. at the time, decided he wanted to get the studio back online,” says Warner Bros. chief engineer and head of studio operations Clarke Schleicher. “I'd been working with Paul on many projects as an independent since the mid-'80s, and he asked if I'd be interested in managing the studio and doing the engineering. We spent about a half-million bucks, put in a Neve VR-60 console, Pro Tools HD3, brought in plenty of great mics and outboard gear, and basically fixed it so we can make records in here, which is what we've been doing for two-and-a-half years.”
Not surprisingly, Warner acts get preferential rates for recording there. “Great for new artists who don't have big budgets,” Worley says, “but we've also been booking lots of non-Warner's acts. It's a really good studio, and even when Capitol comes in and pays the going rate for a group like Lady A it's about half what you'd pay in some other places. So Victoria and I were able to really take our time with Lady A; we didn't have to rush it through because we were worrying about how expensive the studio time was.”
It helped, too, that they spent considerable time on pre-production at a rehearsal hall before going into the studio. For three days, the group and the session players who were brought in to augment the trio — plus their regular lead guitarist, Jason “Slim” Gambill, and drummer Brice Williams — spent long hours working on arrangements, figuring out guitar and keyboard tones, etc. “I wanted the outside players to understand what it meant to be part of this band's album,” Worley says. “We worked out a lot of things in rehearsal that we then didn't have to spend time on once we were in the studio.” Schleicher adds, “That doesn't mean we didn't do any experimenting with sounds once we were recording, but at least we knew what we were after and the way the songs would be structured [instrumentally].”
The Warner Bros. studio has a big tracking room with high ceilings that Schleicher says is wonderful for recording drums in (“Most of the reverb you hear on the drums is the room,” he notes) and six booths that all have excellent sight lines: “They all have pass-throughs and they all have glass doors, and that's one thing everyone likes about this studio; it's one reason we stay so busy as a tracking facility. The piano is in a booth next to the drums with a huge window, all the singers can see out into the main room and I truly believe that translates into better tracks because everyone can feed off each other so easily.”
There was nothing terribly unusual about the tracking sessions, which took place in two different periods with some slight changes in personnel. For the drums, Schleicher used a Shure 57 on the snare, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, Telefunken 251 as overheads, a FET 47 and an Audio-Technica ATM25 on the kick, various GML mic pre's and EQs, and Neve 1081 pre's on the hi-hat and overheads. For guitars, Schleicher says, “I used a technique Neil Dorfsman showed me years ago and I still love. He uses a 57 and then a brighter condenser mic, like an AKG 451 or 452, and he puts the AKG in at like a 45-degree angle and then blends the two microphones instead of having to use equalizers. Then we'll put up a room mic, too.”
When it came to the all-important lead vocals, Scott and Kelley would sing live with the band during tracking, and Schleicher says that some of those scratch vocals made it through to the final mix. As Worley notes, “Those kids can really sing. Take after take, they were strong. It's not something you see every day, especially with singers so young.” For Kelley's vocals, Schleicher used a Korby 47 (Korby is a Nashville company that makes a “convertible” mic with six different capsules) into a GML pre and EQ, and a Tube-Tech compressor. “Hillary used a really sweet [Neumann] 67 we have here, along with the GML and Tube-Tech gear,” the engineer says.
To Worley, “The vocal is the most important thing, and the emotion of the vocal is the most important thing — not pitch and not time. They're important, too, but not as much as emotion. And nobody's invented an auto-emotion box yet!”
“From working with Martina and Sarah Evans over the years, Paul doesn't like to do a lot of punching in,” Schleicher comments. “He likes full performances, so he'll take five or six full performances and then he'll go in and create a comp map of the performances, and then we'll put them together. It's a real art, and he's the best there is at it, in my opinion.”
Schleicher and Worley tracked strings for a few songs at Sony Tree Studios (just across the street from Warner Bros.) during the album mix. “We had about 16 players and we tripled them, so we ended up with lots of strings,” Schleicher says. “One trick that Paul came up with is between string passes, we'll literally have the string players get up and move to different chairs, and if they're good-enough friends, they might actually trade instruments. What that does is give you a slightly different sound with each pass — it changes it tonally and phase-wise, and it can help you make it sound like a larger section.”
Both producer and engineer marvel at how together Lady A were in the studio. Worley mentions their professionalism and “the joy they bring to whatever they do.” And Schleicher says, “We work with a lot of younger artists and usually they're kind of wide-eyed when they come into the studio, but these guys are very smart — they're very aware of what's going on. Some artists just come in and sing and kind of hope their managers will take care of them, but these guys are on top of every aspect of their career, and I love that. I love it when they're involved in everything from the tracks to the radio tour, and making decisions about what is best for themselves and working with their manager and their label. They're also really hard workers — they're either writing or on the road or singing in the studio; it's a 24/7 job for them. They don't take weekends off. They're out there doing it — all three of them. Everyone's carrying their own weight. And that's really impressive to me. I've never seen a young group work together the way they do.”
PLAY: Must Play
Love Don't Live Here