USA TODAY - As the title suggests, the story of the Band Perry's new album Pioneer began with a trip west.
"The three of us took a road trip from Nashville all the way out to California," says Kimberly Perry, 29. Kimberly and younger brothers Reid, 24, and Neil, 22, make up the trio that has topped the country airplay charts with songs like If I Die Young and Better Dig Two.
The siblings set out for California with the idea of recording their second album with producer Rick Rubin. Along the way, they stopped at the Grand Canyon and in Santa Fe, where they wrote the song that became the album's title track.
The group's time with Rubin, who has produced albums for country acts Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks, as well as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, helped the Perrys learn important lessons about song mechanics, improving many of Pioneer's tunes. "So it was quite a journey, figuring out creatively where Pioneer needed to land," says Kimberly. "But I also feel like that's the story of the album. Sometimes in life, you end up at a very different place than where you began. But it was exactly the place where you need to be."
The members of the Band Perry knew they needed to be in a place that helped them maintain the momentum of a career that had started strong and fast. The group's self-titled debut album, released in 2010, sold 1.48 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Many of those sales were driven by the crossover success of If I Die Young, which has sold 4.5 million downloads. Pioneer, out Tuesday, needed to solidify the fan base and help set up a headlining tour in 2014.
"We've always heard about the sophomore slump and the second-album jitters," Reid says. "Rick really put us at ease. One of the first things he said was, 'This isn't the second thing you've ever done, it's just the next step.' "
Rubin's role, however, ended up being one of mentor. "We learned so much about the craft and really tightened up the songs, but then made the creative decision that we needed to take those songs back to Nashville," Reid says.
The band wound up working with Dann Huff, a former rock session guitarist who now produces country hits for the likes of Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts. "Dann's great at taking an artist and expanding on what they do," Neil says. "He makes that artist bigger and more who they are."
The three siblings are touring with Rascal Flatts, and they have an eye on a headlining tour, meaning they needed a sound that would translate to the larger venues.
"When we released our first album, we were playing clubs, we were playing theaters," Kimberly says. "Now we're playing arenas. In 2014, we're gearing up to headline. Our needs have definitely shifted since the beginning."
Better Dig Two, the first single from the new album, seems to fit the bill perfectly. It sounds like an Appalachian folk ballad backed by a thunderous beat, combining the arena-sized sonic requirements with a penchant for what Neil calls "a Southern hopeless romance."
"If you go before I do," Kimberly sings, in a resolute tone that suggests "go" applies to either death or infidelity, "I'm gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two." The song topped the country charts and sold 1.23 million downloads. (A second single, a rock-oriented kiss-off song called DONE., has just entered the airplay charts.)
"In Better Dig Two, you're contemplating and talking about absolute commitment, but in the sense that this girl's a little bit crazy," says Kimberly. "She'd rather die than be without this guy. There's something beautiful and haunting in that."
Apparently, the group's fans have thought so, too. More than one mother has come up to the bandmates and said, "We're playing that song at our daughter's wedding."
For Kimberly, it's all part and parcel of a love affair with the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Bobbie Gentry. "You can take the kids out of the Deep South," she says, "but you can't take the Deep South out of the kids."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)