On Thursday, the veteran pop-country trio Lady Antebellum conceded, on Twitter, at long last, that they really ought to change their goddamn name. “When we set out together almost 14 years ago, we named our band after the Southern ‘antebellum’-style home where we took our first photos,” they wrote in a thoughtful, self-excoriating statement. “As musicians, it reminded us of all the music born in the South that influenced us … Southern rock, blues, R&B, gospel, and of course country. But we are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War, which includes slavery.”
So just call them Lady A now. They changed their Twitter URL and everything.
The most ardent Lady A superfans, of course, called the Nashville trio of Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott, and Dave Haywood that from the start. (On Friday, Rolling Stone interviewed a black Seattle blues singer who has performed, and recorded, as Lady A for more than 20 years, wiping out somewhere between 95 and 500 percent of the country Lady A’s attempt at goodwill.) The weepy, drunk-dialing title track to the band’s 2010 album Need You Now—easily their biggest hit ever, and the blueprint for a lucrative career fusing genteel Nashville country with the soft-rock sensuality of Fleetwood Mac—made them Grammy-feted crossover stars forever sheepish about what they’d decided to call themselves. “It means nothing,” Kelley said of the “regrettably” chosen name, chatting with reporter Whitney Pastorek for an Entertainment Weekly profile that same year. Which is not quite right, but he was on the right track.
From a Lady A profile I wrote in 2010. Relieved that I did indeed ask them about the name, relieved that they knew it was regrettable, and thrilled it’s finally been put out of its misery. https://t.co/3pNNaNyYKn pic.twitter.com/BNuIbMj0pu— whitney pastorek (@whittlz) June 11, 2020
Fast-forward, uh, 10 years. “We understand that many of you may ask the question, ‘Why have you not made this change until now?’” the Twitter statement continues. “The answer is that we can make no excuse for our lateness to this realization. What we can do is acknowledge it, turn from it and take action.” First steps: a donation to the Equal Justice Initiative and a pledge to continue having “hard conversations” so as to “search the parts of our hearts that need pruning.”
If your first impulse is to jump on Twitter yourself and try to make the funniest possible joke about this news, I’m sorry to say that you, also, are a little late.
Does the A stand for antifa now?— all of our problems are inequality problems (@RoswellResident) June 11, 2020
But the why now? question is still a good one: Sharp critics and mortified onlookers alike have been bagging on the baffling name “Lady Antebellum” for a solid decade. (This joke was pretty good, too.) But in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice that followed, mainstream country—which is famously resistant to meaningful change, social and otherwise—is steeling itself for a little heart-pruning. Empty platitudes might not cut it anymore, even in a genre that long ago mastered them.
Verily, the mainstream-country military-industrial complex has spent much of the Trump administration trying to acknowledge the turmoil and division of these trying times in the vaguest and goofiest terms possible. “Since the 2016 election, Nashville music has become the soundtrack of choice for the contemporary American obsession with civility,” wrote Jonathan Bernstein in a wonderful 2019 Rolling Stone piece about the recent glut of corny pop-country songs with titles like “Let’s Just Be Friends,” “Get Along,” “Love Wins,” “Most People Are Good,” “People Are Different,” and (this one kind of rules) “Humble and Kind.” Most of those songs say exactly what you think they’re saying, which is to say nothing at all.
Lady A—who since Need You Now have cranked out five more albums of high-gloss but low-stakes jams more appropriate for wine bars than honky tonks—have gotten in on this inaction, too. Their last album, 2019’s Ocean, includes a gently rowdy let’s-all-get-along number called “You Can Do You,” as in, “We’re all living in the land of the free / So you can do you, and I’ma do me.”
Nobody expects, or for that matter wants, this band to even attempt to soundtrack The Resistance. But in a political climate so furious—and with so much consensus about the necessity of that fury—that even the catastrophically stubborn NFL is at least head-faking toward throwing its support behind Black Lives Matter, the godforsaken band name “Lady Antebellum” is finally, blessedly no longer tenable. It doesn’t matter if Lady A never write a semipolitical song more pointed than “You Can Do You.” Other artists are better suited to that role, anyway.
In early July, the young Texas-born singer Mickey Guyton—a black woman in a genre where just being a woman is a huge liability on country radio—quietly released an ardent ballad called “Black Like Me” that politely but firmly sidestepped any impulse to get along. Chorus:
It’s a hard life on easy street
Just white-painted picket fences far as you can see
If you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be black like me
Do you just let her pretend
That she could be the president?
Would it help us get there any faster?
Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked?
And gay or straight or white or black
You just dream and anything can happen?
Whether either song blossoms into a legit country-radio hit (highly doubtful, alas), Guyton is a crucial voice for the genre as it contends anew with our awful national climate. (“Girl, I’ve been crying every single day,” is her first answer in a recent NPR interview.) Kane Brown, a fellow young, black country star with far greater commercial success thus far, took on that national climate in his own early-June single, “Worldwide Beautiful,” a gentle lope careful not to relight an already-burning world: “At every show I see my people,” he croons amiably. “They ain’t the same, but they’re all equal / One love, one God, one family.”
His message—“You’re missing every color / If you’re only seeing black and white / Tell me how you’re gonna change your mind if your heart’s unmovable”—is admirable, sure. But compared to Guyton’s recent songs, and for that matter compared to the news, there’s something a little too “People Are Different” about it all. And even country stars as apolitical as Lady A are starting to acknowledge that “Most People Are Good” might no longer be good enough.