The Band Perry have one of the unlikeliest No. 1 singles in the recent history of country music with "If I Die Young." It's a feel-good song about mortality, which, in the trio's hands, is not quite as oxymoronic as it sounds. Far from being a bummer, it's the song that's taken them to the top of the charts and very possibly established them as the genre's next real stars. Here's an act you can truly hope you get to see grow old in the country music limelight.
Currently they're out on tour opening for Alan Jackson, but if you don't have tickets for those dates, you can see them this Monday on the American Country Awards on Fox, following their appearance on the American Music Awards and the CMAs just before that.
We caught up with the family act—Kimberly Perry, 26; Reid Perry, 21; and Neil Perry, 19—before a show in L.A. Here's our interview with the threesome:
Q: If I were going to guess the song that would put you over the biggest, I would have guessed "Hip to My Heart," your upbeat first single, which only made it into the top 20. And I would have been one of those people saying "If I Die Young" could never be a single. Did that seem like a slam-dunk to everybody else?
KIMBERLY: It was a little unfair, because we ended up having a lot of research on that song, basically—unofficial, unscientific research. Every single soul that we played it for, in a conference room, or at a show, we just saw it striking a chord with. I'm talking from literally 2-year-olds who like to sing the "uh-oh" part to our 80-year-old grandmother and her friends. So we began to see, ever since the day we finished writing it, that there was just something special about it. (Big Machine label head) Scott Borchetta, when he came into the office on a Sunday to pick up our music and first had it in his hands, that was the one that he played over and over for a couple of hours. So I think that we knew at the very least that it connected, though we couldn't really explain why or how.
REID: It makes an emotional connection with people—not just ear candy.
KIMBERLY: But "Hip to My Heart" is a darn fun song. They served two very different purposes. It was a polarizing single at times, but it definitely helped people say "I love it. It's country music" for us. We love 'em both equally. They're all our babies. "Hip to My Heart" ended up peaking at 17, but that chart position didn't reflect all of the ground that that song broke for us. And even still, live, people are singing it back every single night.
Q: If "If I Die Young" had been released as your first single, it could have set up a different impression of what kind of band you are, since it's not representative of how upbeat you usually are.
NEIL: We definitely had to play it at the right time.
KIMBERLY: Plus, (the first single) came out last October. So if we had put that out first, it would have been "Hi, it's Christmas! If I die young..." If we could even go back and re-script the whole thing, we would do it exactly the same. It's been just a wonderful welcome to country music.
Q: What inspired "If I Die Young"?
KIMBERLY: A cloudy day in east Tennessee, where we live. We were collecting our songs to go in and begin recording. And it was just a moment in time that the three of us looked at each other and said, "You know what? Even if it all ends at this moment, we've really gotten to live and love so completely. Because even at our young ages, we're getting to put feet to our dreams, and we're getting to live this life together." So for us, "If I Die Young" has always been a statement of contentment. And as long as we're making the most of our minutes on the planet, whatever that amount of time is, it'll be just enough. We wrote it out of a heart and spirit of life. And it's just amazing to me that that's really what people take away. If you look out in the audience, when people are singing it back to us night after night, there's clearly a couple of people who are emotionally moved by it, in a way that maybe they've lost somebody. But the entire room, other than a couple people, are smiling, singing it back.
NEIL: And that's even what we wanted to portray with the video, too, was a sense of hope. We used a lot of green colors, which is the color of life.
KIMBERLY: One reporter came and reviewed a show of ours and she said, "For a song written about death, it really has a way of making everyone feel alive." That's really what our goal always was with that song, because that was the spirit that we wrote it out of. We wrote it in major chords, happy chords, with a lullaby melody.
Q: You said you did your own research. Did the label do any real research to see how it would go over at country radio?
KIMBERLY: Nope! We didn't even do it. It was one of those things: "Let's not ask the question. If we all feel in our gut this is the right way to go..." But country radio really took a chance with that one. Because we put it over the summer. When most other artists are going up-tempo and talking about hanging out at the beach, we were talking about dying young. But Scott Borchetta, who's the head of our label, his mantra is "Find the open lane, and then put the pedal to the medal."
Q: The opening-week album sales figure of 52,000 units was astonishing. We don't see that often anymore, and rarely ever did, for a freshman debut.
NEIL: Obviously it was our first record release, so we were just kind of watching the people that had done it before, so whenever something would come through, we would ask "Is that good? Is that good?"
KIMBERLY: We just wanted to hit somewherein the area of 40 (thousand). So early projections of the week started coming around, and they slowly climbed to 45 and 47. And one time, somebody said, "We might hit 50." And then it was like 50 or bust for us. And we overshot that a little bit. But there were a lot of great minds around that release week. And the country fans just showed up for it. We're so grateful for that.
Q: The liner notes in the CD allude to you having been doing this since 1998. Were you, like, little kids making demos?
REID: We were. Kimberly was 15, Neil was 8, and I was 10. And Neil actually was back on drums at the time. We were in separate bands, and Kimberly fronted a band of her high school buddies. We would travel around the Southeast, and our band would open up for her band.
KIMBERLY: The boys spent two weeks watching the band rehearse in our living room, and then caught the performance fever and wanted to try their own hand at it. Then we would just hole up with, like, 18 kids on this 35-foot motor home and truck around the Southeast every weekend. It was crazy.>
Q: There's not a lot of recent precedent for people who are in your shoes as family acts. Early in country, certainly, with acts like the Carter Family. But the one recent family act I can think of, Jypsy, didn't quite make it, as good as they are.
KIMBERLY: I loved that record they put out, though. It was beautiful.
Q: Did you hear anyone speculate about how a family act would go over? Did people say it was a positive or negative?
KIMBERLY: You know, I don't feel like anybody gave uspositives or negatives either way, as far as being a family. But it was funny—we were talking about this at lunch today. We recorded half of our album pre-record deal. Because we wanted to walk into wherever we were going to land with a project that nobody had to imagine. We could say, "You don't even have to guess! We don't even need your help to figure that out." So because we did half of that project, we, along with our producer, chose that first batch of songs. But even before working with a producer, we had these three core songs that we knew we wanted to lay down.
REID: Those three songs represented the essence of how we sounded.
KIMBERLY: There was certainly more skeptics about our choice of songs. "If I Die Young" was one of those three cores, and I remember, there was this group of people who were just like: "That's never going to be on the radio. If you guys want to be competitive, you need to cut more commercial-sounding songs." And we were like, "You know what? We believe in this so much, that even if it doesn't happen based on these songs, it must have never been meant to." We knew that we personally could record that and sell that. So that was what I would say more of the naysayers were back about a year and a half ago. And gratefully, those instincts have proven, to date at least, to have served us well.
Q: Who was the producer you worked with before you had your label deal?
NEIL: We did seven songs with Paul Worley, and then after the album deal, we recorded with Nathan Chapman, and then we recorded our very last track with Matt Serletic.
Q: It doesn't sound like any of those producers really put a stamp on the record. You wouldn't listen to the Nathan Chapman tracks and say "This sounds like Taylor Swift."
KIMBERLY: Right. All three of their processes were very different. Each producer was totally unique as far as the process. But they were all really great listeners. Because a lot of the way we write is, we write in a circle, so Reid is always on bass, Neil on mandolin, and me on acoustic. And a lot of our arrangements are already innately built into the songs as we're writing them. And so literally we would go sit down in front of all three of those producers and play the songs as we had already arranged them. So they would take that core and then layer some elements around that. I think because we had the heartbeat right here int he Band Perry, it sort of allowed—even though we had three producers—a lot of uniform sounds on the album.
Q: Did the other two core tracks that you went in to get your deal with make the album?
REID: They did. "You Lie" and "All Your Life" were the two other ones that we knew had to be on there.
KIMBERLY: One of those will be our next single: "You Lie." So those instincts proved to be good. Which is making us excited now, because right now we're beginning to dream up album 2, and we're just really trying to remain true to our song gut.
Q: I noticed you didn't write "You Lie." Who did?
REID: The Henningtons. They're a fifth generation farm family from Illinois. We've written about one third of the album with them. They came to Bob Doyle's office one day. They didn't even have demos for the songs. They had to come personally and sit down and play all their songs. "You Lie" was the first song that they played for us. One of our favorite lines off the whole album is "I never liked the taste of crow, but baby, I ate it." It was like, we have to have that song.
KIMBERLY: We write all the time, so we have these rules: If we were gonna cut an outside song, it had to be something we felt like we could have written had we had the idea. We only have two on our 11-song project, and they both came from the Henningtons, and "You Lie" is one of those. We fell in love with that instantaneously, and they became like our best friends. After we signed our record deal, they ended up getting a publishing deal.
REID: So now writing is the main deal for them and farming is more of a side thing.