So the tall, handsome one from from Lady Antebellum wants to strike out on his own, huh? That’s not all too strange of a proposition in itself. Hillary Scott seems pretty busy with family obligations these days, and I’m not sure we’ve ever discovered the value of Dave Haywood. If anyone would survive an implosion of country music’s audio version of a trip to Bed Bath & Beyond, it would be the bearded one. It’s the manner that he’s made this leap that’s been quite curious.
The Driver is Charles Kelley’s version of Theodore Roosevelt buying a $700 cowboy shirt and heading for the Dakota badlands, or Rose from Titanic choosing to attend the dance in the boiler room instead of the ballroom because the help knows how to party better. It’s this strange, striving for everything Charles Kelley and Lady Antebellum isn’t that defines this solo album and marks its theme—searching for the poetic authenticity and the excitement of being a lost soul searching for one’s self though the haze of whiskey and harrowing nights out on the road.
Charles Kelley certainly can’t sing about being a destitute musician and van life through his own experience. Lady Antebellum has been all about Prevost buses, five-star hotels, and catered meals since the beginning. Kelley was born in Augusta, Georgia as the son of a doctor—a cardiologist. He went to college at the University of Georgia and pledged to a fraternity. He graduated with a degree in finance. But like so many who flock to the alluring siren call of pop country, there is a yearning for a life more exciting, and more rugged than their own. It’s the promise of escapism. And in between ridiculous, sappy, and poorly-produced and written modern yacht rock ballads on The Driver sits these interesting, and fairly heartfelt and well-written odes to the authentic side of music making.
The Driver had to plow through some pretty serious adversity to even get released. Perhaps it was a case of life imitating art. The album looked like it was done for when the first single flopped. Then there was a tour that went undersold, and eventually was canceled due to lack of interest. Then a Grammy nomination for the title track came out of nowhere, and all of a sudden The Driver got a release date. Kelley said he knew he wasn’t going to make much money starting out, but that he wanted to connect with fans in more intimate venues; to be able to smell the beer spilled on the floor, and see the faces of the fans he was playing to—something the Lady Antebellum experience could never provide.
Recently he released a video entitled Who The F#$% Is Charles Kelley, making fun of the fact that despite the success of Lady Antebellum, his name recognition is close to nil with the passive, inattentive popular country music fan of today. The video was pretty genius marketing, and a stroke of self-deprecation. The generic nature of Lady Antebellum is what got the group to be accepted by the mainstream, but if they never released another album, it’s highly questionable if anyone would notice.
The Driver has some truly terrible stuff on it. “Dancing Around It” is like some ghastly mid 80’s Eddie Money album cut reject. “Lonely Girl” written by Chris Stapleton and Jesse Frasure has terrible R&B styling that strives so hard for the Justin Timberlake sound it’s embarrassing. “Round in Circles” finds a fetching groove in the chorus, but emulates something you would find on a compilation of music featured on the TV show F·R·I·E·N·D·S. These selections are all so pasty and safe, it’s nearly offensive.
Yet Charles Kelley really surprises you in a number of spots on The Driver, and despite it being easy to slide into hating on his efforts because he’s a tenderfoot trying to sing about the rigors of musician life and the road less traveled, to the open mind the songs surprisingly resonate.
The tracks from The Driver that don’t work are the ones Charles penned with others in the industry like Nathan Chapman and Josh Kelley. But he found a gem from a songwriter and steel guitar player named Abe Stoklasa that ends the record called “Leaving Nashville.” This song has been misidentified as “anti-Nashville” by some (including The New York Times), but this misses the point. The story of “Leaving Nashville” is much more rich and tragic, with the the narrative of Nashville’s eternal unfairness just a backdrop. “It’s handshakes and whiskey shots, boy. And throwing up in parking lots all by yourself,” says the song. It’s more about holding onto your dreams no matter what they cost you, and Charles Kelley happens to sing the hell out of it. Abe Stoklasa also pens the opening number “Your Love,” which doesn’t have nearly the depth of “Leaving Nashville,” but is one of the record’s keepers.
Picking Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” and singing it with Stevie Nicks was another savvy decision for The Driver, and again works towards this yearning for tragic authenticity. “Now that drunk tank in Atlanta’s just a motel room to me,” the song says. And “I Wish You Were Here” with Miranda Lambert again speaks to a life foreign to Kelley’s with lines like, “Stumble out of a beat-up van, crawl into a motel bed,” but is effective at telling a story deeper that the one on the surface about a lonely musician; it’s about love and longing.
There’s three really good songs on The Driver, and one or two decent ones. And Kelly was smart to cut this off at nine tracks. It was enough. In the end nothing is enough to give The Driver a passing grade or a strong recommendation, but the listener might be surprised how well Kelley pulled off his fantasy foray into the other side of the music business. Even though the title track isn’t much more that a polished up Bro-Country ballad, even it found how to put some weight behind it in the arrangement. There’s also zero electronic drums or synthesized overdubs on this album, no obvious use of auto-tune, and even a few moments where a steel guitar can be heard.
Theodore Roosevelt trotted into the Dakota badlands a Northeast dandy, but he left a rugged soul. Will the same fate befall Charles Kelley? I would be greatly surprised. But like Theodore, at least Kelley has identified that there is another half, and that their lives and their stories have value, and potentially even a value greater than those of his own. In the trenches and bogs of life is where the real emotions flow. Acknowledging that is a start.