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Album Spotlight: Charles Kelley, ‘The Driver’

The Driver
Capitol Nashville

Charles Kelley‘s The Driver album is a project that rewards commitment. There’s nothing as immediately infectious as many of his full-time band’s greatest hits. Instead, he’s hoping fans will dig deep into his lyrics.

That’s a gamble in the Twitter world, but credit Kelley for staying true to his vision. After an uptempo rocker called “Your Love” Kelley turns inward for the heart of the album. “The Driver” is representative of what’s to follow. If you’re not a fan of the title track, then there’s not much here for you.

“Lonely Girl” is the exception. The bass-heavy, country-funk song is still darker than the arrangements we’re used to hearing Kelley front, but it’s got a sort of big-city-cool about it that is contagious.

The next song is the one he wrote for his wife, and it couldn’t be more different. With “The Only One Who Gets Me,” Kelley gets personal through a sparse, guitar-heavy first verse. Eventually other instruments join in and things swell through the chorus, but the recording feels cut live in one unfettered take.

Like “The Driver,” “Leaving Nashville” is a bit of an insider’s song that some may struggle to relate to. Miranda Lambert is the better of two collaborators. While Stevie Nicks gets her own verse on “Southern Accents,” the country superstar’s harmonies on “I Wish You Were Here” make the song. There’s nothing about either of these male/female collaborations that recalls Kelley’s work with Hillary Scott, which was surely the point.

Strong songwriting and Kelley’s most personal performances to date will endear The Driver to many fans, but others simply won’t get it. That’s fine. In aiming for the edges he’s created something that’s complete, artistic and unique. He didn’t compromise this time.

The Single:

Kelley’s debut solo single is the album’s title track. Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley join him on “The Driver,” a ballad that pays tribute to the fans, crew and artists that make up this genre. It’s a piano-heavy arrangement that tugs at memories. It’s been a slow climber on the radio, but fans enjoy it.

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The Producer:

Paul Worley produced The Driver, and it was mostly recorded in his Skyville Studio over the course of several months. He brings an eclectic mix to the project, although most of the arrangements are simple and somber.

The Songs:

The nine songs on The Driver each feel more personal than the last. There’s two about Kelley’s career as a singer, one about his wife, and six others he takes and twists and turns out like he wrote them (Kelley wrote four total). Overall the album is slower and more raw than fans of Lady Antebellum are used to, with the exception being the one song the singer admits sounds a lot like a Lady A song.

1. “Your Love” (Abe Stoklasa, Ashley Ray) – An uptempo rocker introduces Kelley’s first solo album. Electric guitars and bluesy piano licks pin the arrangement. It’s something of an outlier on The Driver.

2. “The Driver” (feat. Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay) (Charles Kelley, Eric Paslay, Stoklasa) – The lead single from The Driver is a pensive, emotional ballad that comes as close to giving a first-person account of what the stage looks like when you’re on it as any country song ever written.

3. “Dancing Around It” (Kelley, Stoklasa, Daniel Tashian) – Kelley shows his vocal range on this steady, mid-tempo pop-country cut. It’s heavier with production than many songs on The Driver, but Kelley’s voice is still the main focus.

4. “Southern Accents” (feat. Stevie Nicks) (Tom Petty) – Petty’s original arrangement from his 1985 album of the same name doesn’t get shaken up much during Kelley’s cover. It’s still piano-driven, with a little percussion to add rhythm before things begin to swell. Nicks gets her own verse, in addition to singing alongside Kelley.

5. “Lonely Girl” (Chris Stapleton, Jesse Frasure) – Like Thomas Rhett‘s “South Side,” “Lonely Girl” shows Chris Stapleton‘s funky side. This song isn’t hiney-centric like Rhett’s tune, but the beat makes your toes tap and fingers quiver. Kelley’s approach is more serious, and probably appropriate for the nature of the lyrics, and who he is as a singer.

6. “The Only One Who Gets Me” (Kelley, Nathan Chapman) – This is the final song Kelley recorded for The Driver. “The Only One Who Gets Me” was penned for his wife Cassie, and his performance proves it. Sonically the bluesy ballad is grittier, with guitar driving the thin arrangement instead of piano.

7. “Round in Circles” (Kelley, Josh Kelley) – Originally cut for sounding too much like Lady Antebellum, this mid-tempo track is the closest he comes to recalling his full-time trio. However, lighter production separates it from the group’s previous works.

8. “I Wish You Were Here” (feat. Miranda Lambert) (Jedd Hughes) – A smokey love ballad that showcases Lambert’s unique harmonies. Jedd Hughes cut the song himself for a 2009 album.

9. “Leaving Nashville” (Stoklasa, Donovan Woods) – A piano-heavy ballad about not leaving Nashville. The song is a tribute to why singers and songwriters chase their dream. Like the title-track, it shines a light on the industry.

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