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One name, two musical acts and a story of privilege: How the Lady A controversy captured the state of the music industry in 2020

Blues musician Lady A, who has been performing in Seattle for nearly three decades; Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood of Lady A (previously Lady Antebellum) perform onstage in Las Vegas. (LEFT: Roland Báck; RIGHT: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for ACM)

It started with a carefully crafted statement that was more prescient than anyone could have predicted. Two weeks after George Floyd’s death in police custody sparked a national reckoning over racial injustice, members of the country music band formerly known as Lady Antebellum announced they were going to drop the latter half of their name. They were “regretful and embarrassed,” they said, that they didn’t previously take into account the Antebellum South’s associations with the pre-Civil War slavery era.

“Our hearts have been stirred with conviction, our eyes opened wide to the injustices, inequality and biases black women and men have always faced and continue to face everyday,” the trio wrote to millions of followers across social media, adding that they would now go by their longtime nickname, Lady A. “Now, blindspots we didn’t even know existed have been revealed.”

In the cautious world of country music, a genre that often advises its acts to stay quiet on controversial topics, this passed for an unusually progressive act. But soon, any goodwill the band hoped to achieve was demolished: The band was unaware of a 62-year-old Seattle blues singer named Anita White, who has performed under the name Lady A for nearly three decades. Suddenly, White had to worry about competing with the band’s record label resources and millions of streams and sales, with her own music potentially buried online and on streaming services. The next day, she told Rolling Stone she was never contacted by the band and expressed the frustration at the irony of the group deciding on a new name to make up for a previous blind spot about race, only to use the same name of a Black singer.

After realizing this mistake, the band reached out to Lady A the singer. The two sides initially engaged in talks to try to resolve the issue, including possibly recording a song together and resources for White’s career, and the band posted a group Zoom photo to show all was well. But the band said discussions broke down when White’s lawyers asked for a $10 million payment. The singer has said she would use the money for rebranding, as well as donate to charities supporting Black artists.

In July, the band said they “reluctantly … have come to the conclusion that we need to ask a court to affirm our right to continue to use the name Lady A,” which they trademarked in 2011. They said they hoped White and her advisers would “change their minds about their approach. We can do so much more together than in this dispute.”

Two months later, Lady A the singer countersued for trademark-infringement, seeking damages and use of the name; the suit says she has “accrued common law rights in the Lady A trademark” by using it since the early 1990s.

With two lawsuits pending, it’s hard to imagine a situation that more accurately captures the tension in the music industry in 2020. Earlier this year saw the very overdue public acknowledgment from people in the industry that Black artists have never received the credit or profit they deserve, culminating in the social media movement #BlackoutTuesday, which aimed to raise awareness about racial inequality. The legal debacle also highlights the diversity issues in the overwhelmingly White world of country music (hosting its biggest night on the national stage Wednesday with the Country Music Association Awards on ABC), as the genre faces painful truths about its history of sidelining musicians of color.

And, with the unexpected intersection of two musical acts with drastically different journeys, it’s a modern-day story of privilege — a microcosm of who is able and who expects to triumph in the music business.

When White first decided to pursue a singing career in her 30s, she was so nervous that she insisted on having a stage name.

“I was a little reluctant, which is why I chose the name Lady A,” White said in a phone interview, explaining that a friend coined the moniker. She laughed: “I didn’t want everybody to know my name, in case I sucked.”

After sharpening her vocals as a karaoke singer and backup vocalist in her native Seattle, White finally felt comfortable enough onstage to become lead singer of the Lady A & the Baby Blues Funk Band in the 1990s. The band became a local favorite, playing venues around town and at weddings. Drummer John Oliver III noticed that the audiences’ faces lit up when White took the stage, as they were captivated by her powerful voice and presence.

“She was the draw. In the Baby Blues Funk Band, Lady A was the entree and the band was the side dish,” said Oliver, who is now Lady A’s producer. “It doesn’t matter if it’s three people in the audience or 300 or 3,000, she’s going to go full speed.”

More than a decade into working as a band, Oliver and friends convinced Lady A that she needed to make the leap to independent solo artist. White, initially filled with anxiety, wasn’t sure whether she could realistically strike out on her own, or perform without her band, or even have the time to devote to such an endeavor. She didn’t want to be a full-time singer and always had a day job. (She has worked for 23 years at Seattle Public Utilities, where she is an administrative specialist.)

“I did not have that confidence that I could do this on my own,” White said. “But with [my friends’] help, though, they convinced me to write songs. They convinced me to go solo. And once I took control and started doing the music that I wanted to do instead of being influenced by everybody else’s music or doing cover songs, I realized they were right.”

The songs came spilling out and she threw herself into the music grind, recording her debut album in 2007, continuing to build a fan base in the Pacific Northwest and eventually touring in Europe. While she has always had a close circle supporting her, she has mostly been on her own. Acting as her own manager, she learned plenty of difficult lessons and how to advocate for herself.

“There are a lot of people out there — because I’m a woman, because I’m Black, because I’m singing the blues … I’ve had producers, festival producers try to take advantage of the situation,” she said. “I have not been paid the same as my White female counterparts. But then I started demanding certain things because I earned it. And those are some of the things that you have to start learning and not burn bridges along the way. But ensure that people respect what you do, respect your art and respect you.”

White has since recorded six albums — her latest, “Live in New Orleans,” was released this summer — and in recent years, has been preparing to retire from her day job to sing full-time. Then, one day after work, she was inundated with messages: A country music band was making headlines for changing their name, which also happened to be hers.

She felt invisible — like after decades of grueling work, missing time with her friends and family as she poured herself into her music career, someone was just swooping down to erase it.

“I’m not going down without a fight, because I’ve worked hard to get to where I am,” White said. “When this story is dead, if this story goes away and my name stops appearing with theirs, who do you think is going to be the dominant name? It will be them … they continue to dig their heels in on the back of a premise that their eyes have been opened.”

Around the time Lady A embarked on her solo blues career in the mid-2000s, on the other side of the country, three young singer-songwriters found each other in Nashville: Hillary Scott, daughter of Grammy-winning country singer Linda Davis; Charles Kelley, inspired by his brother, pop-rock singer Josh Kelley, to move to Music City; and Dave Haywood, who grew up with the Kelleys in Augusta, Ga.

Scott’s sweeping vocals and Kelley’s slight grit made them ideal singing partners, while Haywood served as a guitar savant. As they gained traction in town, there was a bidding war, and they signed to Capitol Records. After their first photo shoot at a historic antebellum-style home, they decided to call themselves Lady Antebellum — a phrase that confused both fans and their label, but reminded them of their Southern music influences. So it stuck.

Soon after they were officially signed, the group had one of those charmed Nashville success tales — after paying dues playing small bars and honing songwriting skills, their career took off. They hit No. 1 on the charts with their third single, “I Run to You,” and in 2009 released the global smash “Need You Now,” one of the highest-selling country songs of all time. It earned them five Grammy awards, including song and record of the year — a rarity for a country act — and they started touring the world in sold-out arenas.

The band’s powerful rise, combined with their close relationships in the tightknit Nashville community and Music Row’s tendency to turn a blind eye to unpleasant issues, helped shield them from criticism of their problematic name. The subject would occasionally come up, especially when the group was featured at award shows. “I don’t think the academy is going to further reward a country-pop band whose name romanticizes an era in American history before slavery was abolished,” the Philadelphia Inquirer music critic wrote in 2009 when they were nominated for best new artist at the Grammys.

But they continued mostly without incident until June when they announced their name change, noting in their statement that it was “after much personal reflection, band discussion, prayer and many honest conversations with some of our closest Black friends and colleagues.”

“We understand that many of you may ask the question, ‘Why have you not made this change until now?’” they wrote. “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.”

In Nashville, people who know Kelley, Scott and Haywood say they believe the band members’ hearts were genuinely in the right place with the name change — and no one disputes it was a major error to overlook Lady A the singer. But even fans of the band have questioned the choice to file a lawsuit against her.

Though the band declined to comment on this story, they have spoken about their takeaways from 2020 during radio appearances in recent weeks. “I think this year more than ever, you start thinking about, again, what’s your purpose? What’s your legacy? I think we really want to be a band that represents a welcoming environment and love,” Kelley said in one interview.

“It’s just been a huge learning year,” Scott said on another show. “And the fortunate — and unfortunate — thing about learning and growth is that it doesn’t come pain-free.”

The dispute over the name Lady A caused the band the biggest backlash of their 14-year career, as the Internet was apoplectic at the news of their lawsuit. While the band is personally well aware of the vitriol, they have continued on largely as usual, career-wise: Their new single, “Champagne Night,” has climbed to the Top 15 on the radio chart. They are releasing a deluxe edition of their 2012 Christmas album. They are nominated for vocal group of the year at the CMA Awards.

Lady A the solo artist has been working on new music and participating in live-streamed concerts, but she has also had to adjust to being part of a legal dispute that has drawn worldwide attention.

“Don’t get me wrong, there has been great publicity, and Lady A has gotten a few new fans. But this has been hard on her. It’s been taxing,” Oliver, her producer, said. “On top of the middle of a worldwide pandemic, we’re in the middle of a major election and racial unrest. So it’s been very challenging, and that’s what people don’t realize. Lady A is in a fight for her life … they don’t realize they’re trying to erase her identity.”

Oliver and White say it ultimately comes down to privilege — that the band always had the upper hand with their vast resources, and didn’t sue until Lady A the singer leveled the playing field when she retained legal counsel from law firm Cooley LLP, which offered its services pro bono. Although at first she was on board to record a song together, she was disappointed by the other terms they offered. She said she couldn’t get a clear answer on how they planned to resolve the issue of streaming service confusion if they kept the same name.

“So you made a mistake. This is not the time to dig your heels in. Now is the time to come together and say, look, either you drop the name or you pay me for the name,” White said. “It may not seem like a lot to them, because they have a million fans or whatever it is they have. But the musical family that I have, my fans, if you want to call them that, they have been following me since day one. I owe it to my community, I owe it to my musical family, I owe it to my family … to not to be able to say ‘Well, I just gave up.’ Because the bottom line is: Stop taking. The privilege should not allow you to do that.”

Read more:

The original Lady A speaks out on how to be a better ally

Singer says lawsuit over Lady A name is ‘white privilege’

How the country music industry is responding to George Floyd’s death — and facing its own painful truths

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