The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't been easy on almost anyone, but it's been particularly difficult on musicians, who had their entire way of life upended when the live music industry, along with much of the world, shut down for months. Duos, trios and groups, especially, were suddenly without the people with whom they lived so much of their lives.

Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott of Lady A were physically separated from each other for the first three months of the pandemic — the longest they remember ever being apart since forming the trio, formerly known as Lady Antebellum, in 2006.

"What we have is a family; it's effectively a marriage," said Haywood during a recent interview. The conversation is being conducted over Zoom, but he, Kelley and Scott are together again, seated side by side on a couch at an office in Nashville.

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"This is such a tight relationship, so it was sad to not be able to be together," he continues. "It was so uncertain. We had no idea how long it was lasting, and we're sort of waiting every day, like, 'What's going on? Are we going to have to change things?'"

From their respective quarantine locations, Lady A watched their plans for the year get changed and canceled. They texted each other every day, and had occasional meetings via Zoom, but being forced to stay apart was, Scott admits, "really bizarre."

"I honestly feel like I'm still probably processing that," she adds, "just because there was so much life that we were so used to living with each other every day, and then it just went away."

Slowly, though, the trio found ways to make being apart feel like being together: They started hosting Zoom co-writing sessions, and later began seeing each other in a socially distanced manner. Lady A had just released an album, Ocean, in November of 2019, but with no way to support it live and so much to work through, they started writing a new one.

"That was a healing process for us," Haywood says of their pandemic songwriting sessions. "That's what we've always done — we started as a writing trio prior ever being a band — and so that was what we dug into."

BMLG Records

After releasing Chapter One — that is, the first seven of what would be a total 14 songs — in June, Lady A dropped the full version of What a Song Can Do on Friday (Oct. 22). Ahead of the record's release, Haywood, Kelley and Scott described the project as an opportunity to refocus and rediscover their purpose as a band: to, as Kelley says, "put the music first and put our hearts first."

"Commerce should always follow the art — like, put out the art and enjoy the process and feel confident in the process, not the outcome," Kelley reflects. "And I think, so many times, it's like, we would put out a project and if it wasn't as big as the last, it was like, 'Oh, we shouldn't have done that.' It's like, 'No, be proud of it, and also recognize our passion.'"

But a decade and a half in, Kelley says, "I feel like there's no need to try to prove something anymore." Later, he adds, "We may not be the biggest thing in the world, but that's okay; we're fine with that. We've seen it all, really, in the past 15 years: We've been at the top and the bottom and the middle, and as long as we stay together and stay true to our faith and our family and the three of us together, I think we'll be here for a long time."

On What a Song Can Do, songs including "Talk of This Town," "Fire" and "Worship What I Hate" hint of the soul-searching Lady A did while writing their new album. Some of those emotions come from the decision they made as a band — in June of 2020, amid Black Lives Matter marches and the renewed conversation around racism and racial inequality in the United States — to shorten their name from Lady Antebellum to Lady A, thereby stopping their use of a word for the pre-Civil War South that's, therefore, linked with slavery.

"I know it didn't, obviously, play out in some pretty way, but it didn't change our intentions," Kelley says, adding, "Never in our career has anyone questioned our integrity and our intentions and who we are as people. And it was like, 'Whoa, this is not at all what we had envisioned ...'"

Lady A's name change meant they now shared a name with Anita "Lady A" White, a Black woman performer who's been using the moniker for decades. After conversations between the two acts did not end satisfactorily, both sides filed lawsuits that have yet to be resolved.

"It's challenged us all ... to privately learn and really dig in and get more educated around all of these issues," Scott notes. "I'm very grateful to now be in a place to where I feel like I'm learning so much, I'm trying to really listen and posture with complete humility, because there's so much that I don't know ... but that I want to know and I want to understand."

What a Song Can Do also features a different sort of deeply personal moment: "Workin' on This Love," a song that Haywood wrote for his wife Kelli as a Mother's Day gift. Its inclusion on the album offers him his first turn on lead vocals within the trio, with Kelley and Scott singing background.

"I sent it to them with a disclaimer of, 'If it's not a great idea, then we can move right on from it,' but they were so great," explains Haywood, as Kelley chimes in, "It's a great song."

"If the song sucked, we wouldn't have done it," Kelley adds. "I mean, we feel comfortable enough [to be honest about it]."

"And I believe Charles when he says that," Haywood lobs back.

"We were super supportive of it," Kelley continues. "To hear the passion of him wanting to do it, it was a no-brainer ... and we're in a good spot in our career, too — trying some new things doesn't scare us at all."

While Haywood, Kelley and Scott aren't ready to say that the forced physical distance from each other due to the pandemic was a good thing, they agree that being a trio helped them weather the storms of 2020 and 2021 better than they might have alone.

"Because of all of the ups and downs that we had been through up to this point, I think we had what we learned to lean on, to really apply to new circumstances, new difficulties," Scott reasons, "and I'm so thankful for that foundation, because I don't think that we would be able to sit here and say that if not for all the other stuff."

The three artists took turns being each other's rock: "There were some weeks where one of us was the strong one in the group, and the encouraging one, and it was right when the other ones really needed it," Kelley explains. Together, they poured those experiences into "Fire," a resilient track co-written with Justin Ebach.

"When you're going through something like this, it can actually be where you learn the most and grow so much more," Kelley continues. "I think about that as a band: Like, when we were at our most successful ... everything was just kind of going out of control. But when our career has taken its ups and downs is where you go, 'All right, we can get through this, and nothing's going to change.'"

Best Country Albums of 2021 - Critic's Pick

There have been many creative country albums in 2021, but not all have hit the mark. Artists are more than ever toying with distribution methods and packaging as much as they are new sounds, so you get double and triple albums, Part 1 and Part 2, and digital EPs in lieu of a traditional 10 or 11-song release.

The bar for an EP on this list of the best country albums of 2021 is higher than an LP, but one project did crack the Top 10. Too much music proved to dampen other artist's efforts, although Alan Jackson's first album in years was filled with country music we couldn't turn away from. Where Have You Gone has 21 songs, but somehow no filler.

More than ever, this relied on staff opinion and artistic merit to allow for some parity among major label artists and independents. The 10 albums listed below are not ranked, although the year-end list published in the fall will crown a true best album of 2021.