Jason Kempin/Getty
October 01, 2015 03:50 PM

Just a few weeks after Lady Antebellum wrapped up their world tour and the trio announced a hiatus, Charles Kelley stepped onto a much smaller stage on his own Wednesday night and got back to basics.

“This is nerve-racking as hell, guys!” Kelley, 34, told an industry-only audience in Nashville as he announced a forthcoming solo album and debuted a handful of new tracks. “I wanted to get myself out of my comfort zone – and this is out of my comfort zone.”

His set was a collection of bluesy rock tunes (including a Tom Petty cover which will feature vocals by Stevie Nicks) that showcased Kelley’s soulful voice. Despite his nerves, the singer was clearly reveling in the stripped-down nature of the performance, at one point ripping out his ear monitors and declaring, “Let me take this s— off – that’s what I’m trying to get away from!”

The night hearkened back to the early days of Lady A, before the trio became multi-platinum, Grammy-winning superstars, when they played a weekly gig at a small club just up the road. It was that sense of discovery Kelley seemed eager to recapture with his solo project.

Kelley with Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay
Eileen Finan

“It was so much fun to make music without any agenda, without any pressure,” he told the crowd. “It felt like the beginning.”

He was, however, quick to point out that doesn’t mean an end to Lady A. Although the band announced in August that they’re taking a break until the spring, Kelley made one thing perfectly clear: “Lady Antebellum will never f—ing break up, mark my words.”

To underscore the point, bandmates Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood were in the crowd cheering him on. Haywood came with his 1-year-old son Cash in tow, while Scott stood behind the soundboard, swaying and singing along with each song.

“I wouldn’t have done this without Hillary and Dave giving me their blessing,” Kelley said, before thanking them for “understanding why I wanted to do this and why I needed to do this.”

Other famous faces lent their support as well, including Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride, who perched on husband John McBride’s knee and took pictures as Kelley wrapped his set with “The Driver,” a song he said was a catalyst for the new album. Pals Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley, who sing on the track, joined him on stage.

Between preparing to be a new dad (Kelley is expecting his first child, a son, with wife Cassie in February) and his new musical pursuits – which he says will include a club tour this fall – the singer won’t have much down time during his band’s time off. But if the first taste of his new album is any indication, the effort is likely to pay off – and country music can look forward to a strong new solo voice.

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