The Nashville trio now rules the pop charts, too. Not bad for a band on its first tour as headliners.
Who has the best-selling album of 2010? Lady Antebellum and Eminem are running neck and neck at 3 million each.
Who has the most nominations for the American Music Awards? Eminem and Lady Antebellum, each with five.
"It's wild to share the most nominations with Eminem, who is such a worldwide superstar," said Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, which performs Friday at Northrop Auditorium. "We have a long way to go before we catch up to that level. It's just humbling."
Actually, the most eye-popping recognition is a nod for the Country Music Association's (CMA) entertainer of the year. The trio -- Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood and Scott -- didn't start its first headline tour until Sept. 20, three weeks after nominees were announced.
"We appreciate this so much, but we are not worthy," Scott said. "To be in that category with Keith Urban and Brad Paisley -- they have established decades-long careers. We're very humbled and honored, but it just feels a little premature."
Lady A's splashy success can be explained in three words: "Need You Now."
That's the title of its crossover sensation, a dramatic dialing-while-drunk ballad, with evocative piano worthy of Coldplay and female vocals that set up the situation -- it's 1:15 a.m., she's a little wasted and she needs her ex right now. He responds, and their voices intertwine.
Three factors explain why the song exploded on both country and pop radio, Scott says: A relatable lyric, a sing-along melody and just good timing.
Radio programmer Gregg Swedberg of K102 agrees: "It's a perfect storm. The song came along when a lot of music [on pop radio] wasn't very good, so it was easier to cross over with a country song. It has one of the most infectious, sing-along hooks of the last five years."
Avoiding arenas for now
Lady A is very conscious of timing. While such rising country stars as Sugarland and Dierks Bentley opted for half-full arenas on their first headlining tours, Scott and her buddies are sticking to medium-sized venues such as the 4,800-seat Northrop.
"We want to give our fans an up-close-and-personal night," she said last week by phone. "We don't have big video screens on either side of the stage. Also, you want to make sure the demand is there before you try to fill some 10- and 15,000-seat arenas. Trying to fill arenas too early, you can end up really damaging your career."
Headlining for the first time means more responsibilities, expenses and staff (10 people were added), Scott explained. It almost sounds like moving out of your parents' house.
"Ironically, I just bought my first house yesterday," said the 24-year-old. But she won't get to spend time there until Thanksgiving week.
The family business
Scott is no stranger to the music business. She is the daughter of Linda Davis and Lang Scott, backup singer and acoustic guitarist, respectively, in Reba McEntire's touring band during the 1990s. Hillary got the music bug in high school after singing in her mother's Christmas show at Opryland in Nashville. She twice tried out for "American Idol" but finally sang on the show in April -- with Lady Antebellum.
Kelley and Haywood, both 29, have been friends since junior high school in Augusta, Ga. Kelley, the son of a cardiologist, and Haywood, son of a dentistry professor, earned degrees in finance and management systems from the University of Georgia. After working construction for a spell, Kelley -- whose brother is the modestly successful pop singer Josh Kelley -- invited Haywood to Nashville to form a band.
At a Nashville club in May 2006, Scott introduced herself to Kelley and they began writing songs together. He brought in Haywood, and they all realized they could perform, too. Before the trio even landed a record deal, their voices were heard on the radio on pianist Jim Brickman's 2007 pop single "Never Alone." In April 2008, Lady Antebellum's self-titled album was released, leading to three country hits (including the chart-topping "I Run to You") and the CMA trophy for best new artist.
The CMA magic continued in 2009, with Lady A ending Rascal Flatts' six-year run as top vocal group and also grabbing best single. In January, Lady A scored a Grammy trifecta, winning best group vocal performance, singing "Need You Now" and sitting next to Lady Gaga in the audience. With "Need You Now" atop the country chart, Lady A's second album (also titled "Need You Now") arrived with an appearance on Oprah, and "American Honey" and "Our Kind of Love" also became No. 1 country singles.
While Lady A records for Capitol Nashville, their songs eschew typical Nashville ingredients, such as cheating, drinking and heavy twang. The trio favors smooth, polished, harmony-laden pop -- a duet here, a Scott or Kelley solo number there, a little guitar muscle from Haywood at times.
The singers have even branched out beyond country, harmonizing on Maroon 5's new album and writing songs with R&B star John Legend. In different combinations, the members of Lady A also have written songs for country stars Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Sara Evans.
Billboard magazine predicts that "Need You Now" will be a strong favorite to garner Grammy attention for best record and song of the year when nominations are announced on Dec. 1.
"If I start thinking about that, I get really nervous," Scott said. "When we sat in a room and started writing songs together a little over four years ago, you never think that this can really happen. We're just living proof that a little hard work and a lot of luck can make things happen."
"Need You Now" has earned CMA nods for best single, song and video; Lady A will also vie for best album and top entertainer on the Nov. 10 show.A Predicto poll says 73 percent of its voters think "Need You Now" will prevail as top single.
"One of my best friends, Miranda Lambert, leads the pack with the most nominations," Scott said. "In every single category that we're in, she's in, and I absolutely love that. No matter what happens, we're happy. [Lambert's] 'The House That Built Me' is one of the best songs I've ever heard. If we take it home, if she takes it home, whoever -- it's just a big family in Nashville on that night at the CMAs.
"We're hopefully performing. That's kind of what we focus on. That's the only thing you can control on a night like that."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719