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Sunday, 22 March, 2009 9:02 PM

Lady Antebellum: CMA New Artist Award Winner

Photo by Andrew Southam

Capitol Nasvhille recording artists Lady Antebellum

By Bob Doerschuk
© 2009 CMA Close Up News Service

The young artists who comprise Lady Antebellum weren't the first ever to race onto the stage, their faces radiating thrilled disbelief, and tell the world that they truly did not expect to hear their names called as winners at the 2008 CMA Awards.

That doesn't change the fact that they really truly were stunned when presented with the CMA New Artist Award by Taylor Swift, who had preceded them in 2007 as winner of what was known then as the CMA Horizon Award.

Out in the audience, though, a few people were not surprised at all. Their mothers, to name three, all of whom sat together as guests of their kids. And then there was Mike Dungan, President/CEO of Lady Antebellum's record label, Capitol Records Nashville.

"I told them afterwards that even if they had not won that Award, they won with just their performance. Just seeing them up there, I felt they connected so many dots. And," he added candidly, "I cried. It was really recognition of how great this band is."

Days later, Lady Antebellum documented their CMA Awards experience with an installment of the Webisode series they post each Wednesday at From opening shots of the threesome filming a Chevy/CMA Awards promo spot while confessing to "nervousness" through a late-afternoon champagne toast with their mothers and close friends in their Hilton Nashville Downtown suite overlooking the already crowded Red Carpet area outside the Sommet Center to their electrifying version of "Love Don't Live Here" and their post-Awards backstage thanks to fans, this online adventure arguably captures the very moments when they crossed the line toward stardom.

Looking back during a late-November lunch in Nashville, they were able to put some perspective on that memorable night. "When they introduced us at our Murfreesboro show as the CMA New Artist of the Year, it definitely brought a new sense of excitement," said Charles Kelley as Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood nodded their agreement. "Even though we're on our second single right now, there are still so many Country Music fans who haven't really been introduced to us. I had a different feeling too, that night, after we won, seeing some of the other artists, people we look up to, come up and congratulate us. You're going, 'I didn't even know you knew my name!'"

"George Strait was right there," Haywood added. "That was the first time I'd met him. Being so new, it's cool when people know who you are. We started less than three years ago, and there are lots of people in this town who have been doing it a lot longer. We don't take any of that for granted, that things have been able to work out so far for us."

That process began long before their first meeting. Haywood and Kelley have hung out and made music together since attending Riverside Middle School in Augusta, Ga. Both wound up eventually in Nashville, where Scott had been raised in Music City royalty. (Her mother, Linda Davis, is a CMA Awards winner too, having garnered Musical Event of the Year honors for her 1994 duet with Reba McEntire on "Does He Love You," and her father Lang Scott is an accomplished musician.)

Scott had met Kelley at a Nashville music spot, having recognized him from his MySpace page; they struck up a conversation that ended in a writing appointment. Soon Scott, Kelley and Haywood were writing, rehearsing and posting demos on MySpace; by August 2006 they had booked themselves into a residency at the 3rd & Lindsley Bar and Grill.

Their debut there wasn't exactly auspicious. "About 25 people showed up," Haywood timated. "I remember feeling pretty comfortable up there," Kelley ventured. "But I was basically standing in one spot." "And," Scott added, "it was like, 'Are you going to talk? Am I going to talk?"

Still, the crowd, and its enthusiasm, seemed to grow from one show to the next. "I remember not understanding why," Haywood admitted. "It was kind of unexplainable, the way it worked between the three of us. But when it works, you've just got to keep doing it."

"We recognized that we'd stumbled upon something special here, even with just the dynamic of there being three people onstage and being able to interact with each other," Scott said. "But there was a lot of trial and error ." "There were lots of errors," Kelley cut in as his colleagues laughed.

Their stage chops improved. Scott's soulful, nuanced singing and Kelley's edgy baritone developed a symbiosis while leaving the perfect spot for Haywood to seal the harmonic blend. "We wanted people to be able to define the voices as we mixed them," Kelley explained. "I will say, though, that when we met Hillary, I found my voice. I was singing a little higher before and just out of necessity, to sing the male harmony, I started taking my voice down a little bit. And I found this low, kind of gritty voice that honestly had been kind of hidden for a while."

The same high quality infused their material, whose mix of polish and emotion, tight hooks and extended melodies, more than met the standards of modern Country. They evolved a group approach to writing, beginning almost always with a progression that Haywood plays on guitar or piano. Then, as Scott and Kelley explore possible melodies to stretch over the chords, the lyrics take shape - or, as Scott put it, "we start mumbling."

All three contribute equally, though Scott came to the table initially with the advantage of having learned about the process from Victoria Shaw. The Emmy and ASCAP Award-winning songwriter had known Linda Davis for years, but after watching Davis' daughter at 16 perform with other family members at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel during one seasonal run of "The Linda Davis Family Christmas Show," Shaw jumped from her seat and ran up with an offer.

"I literally said to her, 'I don't even know what I mean, but I want to work with you,'" she said, laughing. "Hillary was this raw gem - I mean, really raw, but she had something that just went straight to my heart and my head. I said, 'Why don't you come over to my office and we'll just talk?' So she came over, and I asked her if she would sing a cappella, which she did. That's where she really got me."

"My parents, who were both friends of Victoria, have always been supportive," Scott recalled. "But they in no way pushed me to do this for a living. If anything, it was the opposite. And honestly, it was a huge fear of mine to appear that I was riding the coattails of my parents, because I knew I was different and that wasn't the way I wanted to accomplish this. So when Victoria asked if I was interested in doing this seriously, I was like, 'Yeah!' We became a team. I started writing with her and she started helping me develop as an artist."

Scott's skills, added to those that Haywood and Kelley had developed, were evident to the music industry pros who began lining up for those early Lady Antebellum sets at 3rd & Lindsley. Dungan made the trek after Shaw had tipped him off about the band. Through working with Davis, he had known Scott since she was 6 years old, but it was their impact as a group that prompted him to welcome them to Capitol.

"What really separated them from the pack, in my opinion, was Charles' voice, which on its own may be a little to bluesy for our radio format," Dungan said. "But when you combine him with Hillary and her great performance, and you add Dave's sense of rhythm and getting to the hook really fast and mastery at arranging these things, it's perfect."

The pieces came together on their self-titled debut album, with Shaw and Paul Worley producing. Though rooted clearly in modern Country, Lady Antebellum rocks hard too, from the crunchy guitar of "Lookin' for a Good Time" to the arena-shaking power of "Love Don't Live Here." Often the pieces fit so snugly, as in the Bruce Hornsby-inflected piano and down-home fiddle at the top of "Home Is Where the Heart Is," that it can be hard to see any line between them.

None of that matters to Scott, as long as it comes from the heart. "People gravitate toward what's real," she insisted. "When Garth [Brooks] is onstage, he allows all of those thousands and thousands of people to see inside him, to see his personality. That's because he isn't fabricated; fans could tell if he was."

"Don't listen to it because it's Country Music - and don't not listen to it because it's Country Music," Kelley summed up. "If you like it, listen to it - and if you don't, don't. To me, it's all just music."

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