After a 'Mid-Life Band Crisis,' Lady Antebellum Plumbs their Emotional Depths in 'Ocean'

Lady Antebellum‘s Charles Kelley admits he was hit hard by a “band mid-life crisis.” After more than a decade in one of country music’s most successful groups, he found himself asking the inevitable question: What do you do once you’ve lived your dreams?

Ultimately, for Kelley and bandmates Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood, the answer wasn’t trying to go higher or bigger. It was going deeper.

That impulse, growing out of one pivotal song, eventually pointed the way to the fathoms of Ocean, the group’s new album, their seventh, which debuts Friday.

Kelley, 38, offers fair warning about the project: “It’s not gonna be for everybody. I wouldn’t pop this thing in if you’re wanting to go out and have a bachelorette party.”

If you are, however, wanting to jump into some of the most powerful and passionate work that the trio has created in their 13 years together, then by all means, pop this thing in.

There’s no better place to start than with that pivotal song, “Be Patient with My Love,” which Kelley wrote, with Dave Barnes and Ben West, as a desperate plea to his wife, Cassie. A couple of years ago, Kelley says, “that was my autobiography right there — just really struggling with my drinking, struggling with my spirituality, and what I really wanted to get out of this life and just being bored.”

The couple, who are parents to 3-year-old son, Ward, are on much firmer ground today, Kelley assures. “It took me a little while to get my priorities back and in check,” he says. “Once you let go of all that stuff and open up about it, it’s amazing how much love and positivity really come shining in, and it brought us a lot closer together.”

When Scott, 33, and Haywood, 37, listened to “Be Patient with My Love,” they knew it was the game-changer the group had been looking for. “I think it literally set the tone not only on how we wanted to write, but also how we picked the songs for the rest of the record,” Kelley says, who, naturally, sings lead vocal on the song.

Dave Haywood, Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum

Scott took her turn at lead on what would become the album’s title song, offering a perfect counterpoint to “Be Patient.” Written by Tofer Brown, Sarah Buxton and Abe Stoklasa, “Ocean” is a raw, aching plea to be let in to a closed heart — and it presented Scott with both emotional and vocal challenges.

“When I really dug into the lyric,” she says, “it broke my heart.” She couldn’t help but see the faces of the people she loves “who struggle with opening up or struggle with substance abuse or depression or anxiety.”

And she also saw herself, she says, as she thought about “my own relationship with my husband and seasons where I’m way more emotionally closed off, and how that must make him feel. It just really moved me to my soul.”

Scott knew she had her work cut out for her in the studio: “I wanted it to be vulnerable and emotional, but not feel like I was out of control vocally.” Initially, it proved too tall of an order: She was in tears by the second take.

“I had to walk out,” she says. “I had to go have a good cry and shake it off.”

Recording the song, she says, “was one of the most challenging and beautiful experiences I’ve ever had in the studio.”

Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum

Both Kelley and Haywood consider it to be among Scott’s finest vocal work, so much so, their voices don’t even appear until the second verse, a first for Lady A.

“We tried to stay out of the way,” Haywood says with a chuckle.

Says Kelley: “I didn’t want to cover up the vulnerability. It was almost like you want people to go, this is her story. This is a one-character story. It’s pretty much her song.”

Other cuts on the album strike deep emotional chords. Current single “What If I Never Get Over You” mines the same lost-love desperation of their career-defining hit, “Need You Now.” “What I'm Leaving For” reflects the sacrifices all three make for their six children; Besides Kelley’s son, Haywood has a son, Cash, 5, and daughter, Lillie, 23 months, and Scott has three daughters, 6-year-old Eisele and 19-month-old twins, Emory and Betsy. “Crazy Love,” perhaps the most traditional country song on the album, offers a moving message of redemption.

“The Thing That Wrecks You,” a throbbing ballad about disastrous love, allowed the group to check off an item that’s long sat on their wish list: a collaboration with Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet. In fact, it’s Lady A’s first recorded collaboration with any act, and the lush blend of these seven voices was definitely worth the wait.

Though the two groups regularly go head to head in award nominations, “we’re all super-close friends,” says Haywood, “and I always laugh when people think we’re super-competitive.” He’s still marveling that he got to witness the quartet work out their parts on the song: “It was like a master class in vocal work.”

“Above our pay grade a little bit,” Scott says, laughing.

“Alright,” perhaps the one song on the album that evokes the deepest emotions from the trio — and it actually is the most uplifting. It’s the final songwriting collaboration between the trio and Michael James Ryan, the late songwriter-producer who went by the name Busbee. A crucial collaborator with numerous country artists, including Maren Morris, Carrie Underwood and Florida Georgia Line, he succumbed, at age 43, to an aggressive form of brain cancer in September.

The trio estimates they co-wrote as many as 30 songs with Busbee, recording about half. He also produced their last album, the Grammy-nominated Heart Break.

The life-affirming lyrics of “Alright,” says Kelley, are “so representative of him and his spirit.” Haywood adds: “I feel like it’s the message he would want to leave with us.”

The trio learned of Busbee’s death just as they were signing off on the album’s liner notes, and they made a quick decision to dedicate Ocean to him and his family. It’s one of a growing number of tributes: Maren Morris honored him on Wednesday in her speech accepting the CMA album of the year, and Carly Pearce has announced  she will be dedicating her new Busbee-produced album, due out in February, to him, as well.

“He was more than just a songwriter friend,” says Haywood. “He was part of our Lady A family.”

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