Stepping away from Lady Antebellum, Charles Kelley spreads his wings on his solo debut The Driver and, in the process, he reconnects with his Southern roots. These roots aren’t precisely entangled in the backwoods. Based on this swift nine-track record — clocking in at under 40 minutes, just like records used to back in the days before digital — those roots are album-rock radio, a sound explicitly referenced in a cover of Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” where the head Heartbreaker’s old muse is an enthusiastic duet partner, but this sensibility permeates throughout The Driver.
It’s there in the insistent, chiming guitars of the opening “Your Love,” it’s there in the cool urban cowboy simmer of “Dancing Around It,” and even the burnished harmonies of the title track feel like a throwback to the ’70s soft rock of America, or maybe B.W. Stevenson. This isn’t to say Charles Kelley isn’t a modern guy, though – quite the opposite, actually. Like the Brothers Osborne, Charles Kelley enjoys how the past echoes in the present, so he’ll play with these classic rock sounds but also a bit of soul (“Lonely Girl,” “The Only One Who Gets Me,” both sounding as if they were designed to be played alongside recent singles by Thomas Rhett or Brett Eldredge), and harnesses both his sensitive and rowdy sides in a nice clean pop sensibility.
More than anything, these crowd-pleasing instincts give The Driver its charm: as it slides between soft aching tunes (including the Miranda Lambert duet “I Wish You Were Here”) and widescreen pop anthems.