“The Driver” is Charles Kelley’s Yearning for Real World Authenticity (Album Review)
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.
February 9, 2016 @ 1:14 pm
Sorry for off-topic, i was just wondering if you are planning to review Dori Freeman’s album? Would love to hear your opinion on it.
February 9, 2016 @ 1:35 pm
It’s coming soon.
February 9, 2016 @ 1:18 pm
Sometimes I think you don’t like anyone. 🙂 I think he is the best part of LadyA & have tickets to see his show. To each their own as the saying goes. 🙂
February 9, 2016 @ 1:37 pm
“The Driver” is full of really good songs, and really bad songs.So it’s a little more complicated than saying I don’t like him. I would agree he’s the best part of Lady Antebellum, though I guess we would have to hear solo efforts from the other two to be fair.
February 9, 2016 @ 3:26 pm
Dave seems to be their primary writer, but I’ve never heard him on lead vocals, so it’s hard to know what he’d be capable of when it comes to a solo album.
February 9, 2016 @ 3:44 pm
Please tell me he didn’t recruit The E-Street Band
February 9, 2016 @ 1:19 pm
I always get my cowboy shirts from Shepler’s. Good-er prices (much better than $700), but I’ve had a customer service issue or two–just be sure of your order and coupon before you click Go. And watch for stock levels.
I guess I could listen to this, if the wife liked it and wanted to purchase. I guess.
February 9, 2016 @ 3:32 pm
Just FYI, Sheplers no longer has physical stores. Boot Barn bought them out early fall of 2015. Sheplers.com is still around, and is a separate entity from Boot Barn. But Boot Barn now owns all Sheplers stores, and either already have or soon will renovate and take over said stores.
February 10, 2016 @ 3:54 pm
Sheplers has let me down a few times in the past which is why I always make a special stop at Allens Boots when I’m in Austin. Great selection and customer service.
February 9, 2016 @ 1:23 pm
“Southern Accents” is a song I’ve long hoped a country artist would cover and release as a single. Just not this guy because first off, he’s not country….
February 9, 2016 @ 2:46 pm
I love that song, too. Back in the day (07) we were working an artist, Lance Miller, he covered it on an album that never saw that light of day to the best of my knowledge. The “lead single” to that album was a great song, too – George Jones and Jesus. I had an advance copy of that album and played his version of Southern Accents often.
Johnny Cash does a great cover also.
February 9, 2016 @ 1:55 pm
Nope. Not even interested. If he’s a part of Lady A. then he’s part of Country Music’s identity crisis. He’s not a leader he’s a follower, going the way the wind blows, trying to be a star by piggybacking on anybody who will give him a free pass, trying to ride through changing trends by being nondescript, and using marketing to fool folks into thinking he’s a legitimate creator. That’s why Miranda is here, because he’s piggybacking her superstardom to try and shift units.
February 9, 2016 @ 7:25 pm
Move to the head of the class Fuzzy . You ” get ” it .
Here’s a real good singer with a unique sound to his voice who doesn’t know WHAT he wants to sing . WHY don’t some of these folks go and sift through the reams of amazing material at the bottom of the publisher’s drawer ….stuff written by GREAT writers with standards ..and I mean STANDARDS both ways . They write songs from a place of integrity cuz they have standards . And because of that, their songs have BECOME standards . Why the fuck are all of these shit acts trying to re-invent the wheel ? THERE IS NO REASON FOR A SHIT SONG to show up on ANY record when there are so many GREAT unrecorded songs around . THIS tells me that ‘ artists ‘ don’t know a great song when they hear one ( or a shit song ) …or that they are not familiar with the great writers and their county music standards ….or they are forced to record the pap they release ( Joe Nicholl ) . Recording garbage music is not only unforgiveable as a waste of anyone’s talent and a listener’s time but completely unnecessary with the thousands of great songs rotting away in publisher’s catalogues . Why am I settling for a Science Fiction Burger from 7/11 when there are so many other AMAZING burger joints ??
February 9, 2016 @ 2:23 pm
I actually really like the one with Miranda. Lyrics are good, not too over done. I probably wouldn’t change the station if it came on the radio.
February 10, 2016 @ 10:30 am
I agree. I really like Miranda’s harmonies on this song.
Six String Richie
February 9, 2016 @ 2:36 pm
“It”™s handshakes and whiskey shots, boy. And throwing up in parking lots all by yourself,”
Haven’t listened to the whole song but that is a pretty cool lyric.
Derek E. Sullivan
February 9, 2016 @ 2:37 pm
While I can see why this site has issues with the pop catalog of Lady Antebellum, the band has always been at its best with Kelley on lead. Scott is one of the most overrated performers of my lifetime. American Honey was one of the worst songs on the band’s breakout CD and yet it was the follow-up to Need You Now. What? And Downtown and Bartender are two of the worst “county” songs of this century. I’m excited to see what Kelley can do without Scott weighing him down.
February 9, 2016 @ 7:27 pm
Learning lap steel in Winston
February 9, 2016 @ 2:55 pm
$700 cowboy shirt, graduated with a degree in finance, another Good read Trigg, now Southern accents album was when Petty still rocked, and had drummer Stan Lynch.
February 9, 2016 @ 4:58 pm
I don’t know what to think of this one. For every touching moment “Leaving Nashville”, “I Wish You Were Here”, “The Driver”, there’s some awful pop rock song that sounds like a cover of a deluxe album song from the mid 80’s. For every time it feels like Charles turns in an excellent, raw performance, there’s another song where his voice is slathered with unbearable effects. For every song where the instrumentation is allowed to breathe, there’s another where the instrumentation is crushed, compressed, and turned into one big ball of noise shoved straight to the front. For every clever line like “You’re friends are friends of country stars, yeah they’re buying homes and here you are, you’re two months from living in your car”, there’s a “You won’t be lonely (x4) girl” where he sounds like he’s tilting his chin as far up as he can to warble out whatever he’s trying to sing.
If you get anything, let it be “Leaving Nashville”. It’s by far the most cleverly written, well constructed, and best delivered song.
February 9, 2016 @ 5:26 pm
I wish singers would start releasing 5 song EPs-one for country fans and one for the idiot lemmings who enjoy shit
February 9, 2016 @ 6:37 pm
I think your review is spot on. This album is better than the bro-country/EDM country/pop country being peddled by the likes of Thomas Rhett, FGL, Hunt, etc. But it also feels like Kelley wants fans to feel like this is an incredibly deep album when in reality the songwriting and production just can’t keep up with those goals.
This album is incredibly mediocre for the most part, but the sad thing is it may very well end up being one of the stronger albums that a mainstream, young male artist puts out this year. I can’t include Stapleton since his mainstream success feels like an accident at times, Vince Gill has long left radio success behind and the first singles by artists who are usually pretty damn solid (Allan, Bentley) were absolutely hideous.
February 9, 2016 @ 11:09 pm
I wholeheartedly detest Lady A, and I don’t like this clown one bit. I can’t stand his voice or his music. His current radio single makes me want to jump off a bridge.
February 9, 2016 @ 11:46 pm
actually “Leaving Nashville” video really surprised me. vocals were spot on and the lyricism was way above what I had expected.
February 10, 2016 @ 7:10 am
Leaving Nashville has depth because it was co-written with Donovan Woods who has a way with lyrics.
February 10, 2016 @ 9:48 am
His brothers solo career was also short but he had some decent songs with “Georgia clay” “naleigh moon” and “mandolin rain” the latter being on xm, and first being being perhaps a top 15. I liked Charles doing “leaving nashville”
February 10, 2016 @ 11:19 am
I’ve been in that Atlanta drunk tank once or twice myself. I like this version of Southern accents a lot.
February 12, 2016 @ 4:38 pm
The other writer for “Leaving Nashville” is Donovan Woods AKA the guy who wrote “Portland, Maine” which was recorded by Tim McGraw. He’s not country but he’s a great songwriter https://youtu.be/1ZndG-YyJN8