''Need You Now'' is the biggest album of the year, helping to introduce this country trio to a mainstream audience

By Whitney Pastorek
Updated February 19, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

The three perpetually cheerful members of country trio Lady Antebellum just enjoyed the best month of their career — with one glaring exception. When vocalists Charles Kelley, 28, and Hillary Scott, 23, and guitarist Dave Haywood, 27, took the Grammy stage on Jan. 31 to perform their smash single ”Need You Now” for an audience of millions, a giant curtain fell on Scott’s head. ”I made the mistake of spotting Jay-Z right when the song was starting,” she remembers. ”I was like, ‘Oh, there’s Jay-Z. And now a scrim is on my head. Great.”’

Seems a small price to pay for the kind of run they’re on. Their sophomore disc, Need You Now, is the year’s biggest new album yet, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and selling 898,000 copies in its first three weeks. After losing the Best New Artist Grammy last year to Adele, they took home an award this time for ”I Run to You,” the third single off their platinum-selling self-titled 2008 debut. At the 2009 CMAs in November, they dethroned Rascal Flatts as Vocal Group of the Year. And ”Need You Now,” which has already hit No. 1 on the country charts, is crossing over to pop stations, reaching No. 3 on the Hot 100. ”Honestly, that’s all icing on the cake of us just being able to perform every night,” says Scott. ”I can’t visualize SoundScan numbers. I’ll be able to see it when I can feel the energy of a packed house.”

Their incessant enthusiasm has helped Lady Antebellum establish a role as country’s adorable upstarts?despite the fact that they don’t have much of an underdog story. Scott’s mother, Linda Davis, won a Grammy in 1994 for ”Does He Love You,” her duet with Reba McEntire. Kelley’s older brother is the singer-songwriter Josh Kelley, who happens to be married to Katherine Heigl. Haywood grew up alongside the Kelleys in Georgia, where the three played in local rock bands. After college, Haywood and Kelley teamed up as songwriters, and Scott (then a solo act) discovered their music on MySpace. One fateful day in 2006, she bumped into Kelley at a Nashville club and proposed a writing session. They soon adopted the name Lady Antebellum, which Kelley ”regrettably” came up with after a day spent taking pictures around plantation homes. (”It means nothing,” he insists, and prefers the ”Lady A” nickname since coined by fans.)

The trio’s first gig was opening for Josh, and in 2007 they signed to Capitol Nashville. ”I was wondering how people were going to accept us,” says Kelley. ”We couldn’t all of a sudden start talking about ropin’ and ridin’. Dave and I are from Augusta. He was on the tennis team.” But their poppy three-part harmonies were perfect for a genre already primed by nontraditional acts like Taylor Swift. ”There’s a lot of country that’s really twangy, and a lot of pop that’s way too crazy,” says Haywood. ”Our music is more down the middle. Hopefully it’s just good.” Lady A’s first two singles, ”Love Don’t Live Here” and ”Lookin’ for a Good Time,” were about a breakup and a one-night stand; the younger generation of country fans went gaga.

The group’s fan base has since expanded to include grown-ups, and Paul Worley, who produced both Lady Antebellum and Need You Now, says this viral expansion feels familiar. ”Something is taking hold here, similar to the Dixie Chicks when Wide Open Spaces came out,” he says. (He produced that 1998 classic, too.) ”Those three kids are trying to make music that people will talk about 30 years from now. Their egos are in a good place. And when you hear them live, they’re great. It’s real.”

As songwriters, they’ve got their emotional bases covered: Kelley just got hitched, Haywood’s playing the field, and Scott says her recent breakup helped fuel Need‘s heightened emotions. And they know this is just the beginning. ”It feels like a step up,” says Kelley, ”but I’m already thinking about where we can take it.” When Haywood is asked what acclaimed album he’d love to match someday — Born to Run? Kid A? — he picks Hootie and the Blowfish’s colossal 1994 debut, Cracked Rear View. ”I don’t ever want to make a record that isn’t commercial,” Kelley agrees. ”It’s commercial for a reason: It’s f — -ing catchy.” On crossing over, Scott says their philosophy is simple: ”Play us wherever you want. I don’t care if it’s a polka station.”

Early advantages behind them, Lady Antebellum now seem to revel in getting their hands dirty. The trio is constantly in motion: writing, tweeting, shooting footage for upcoming webisodes. Scott says they’re perfectionists, and success is just making them more ”nitpicky.” ”It’s lit a fire under our rear ends,” she says. ”We kind of have a target on our backs now, because way more people are watching.” Case in point: The Monday before the Grammys, the group spent a chilly day in the mountains north of L.A. shooting a video for new single ”American Honey.” Between takes, Kelley watched a herd of attendants scramble across a dry creek bed to get back to the warmth of the trailers. He shook his head. ”It used to be just the three of us,” he said. ”Now we need 80 f—ing people with us everywhere we go.” Might want to get used to it.

Four things you didn’t know about Lady Antebellum

1. Hometowns
Hillary Scott: Nashville, where she sang in her parents’ Xmas show at the Opryland Hotel. Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood: Augusta, Ga., where Haywood played in their high school’s jazz band with Kelley’s brother, Josh.

2. Oddest influence
Rufus Wainwright. ”I went to a concert [of his] in college,” says Kelley, ”and I was the tallest, straightest dude there, singing out loud to every song, and everybody was looking at me like, ‘Who the f — – is this giant country dude?”’

3. Secretly sad?
Scott recently co-wrote a heart-wrenching track called ”Suffocating” for Blake Shelton. ”She writes the darkest songs all the time,” laughs Kelley. ”And there’s not one ounce of darkness on the outside. She could be hiding something.”

4. Worst gig ever
At a gas station/restaurant in Milwaukee. ”It was at the butt crack of dawn to kick off hunting season,” remembers Kelley. ”Everybody was sitting there eating. They didn’t know who the hell we were. It was funny as s—.”