HITS Daily Double



KAREN FAIRCHILD, KIMBERLY SCHLAPMAN, PHILLIP SWEET ANDJIMI WESTBROOK may well be the nicest people in country music. And that’s magnified by the fact that as Little Big Town, the foursome also makes some of the genre’s smartest and most progressive music. Always willing, always seeking, it’s given the band—which was equal parts Fleetwood Mac, dream syndicate and The Oak Ridge Boys before Jimmy Buffett tapped them to sing background vocals on his early albums—a career that’s manifested everything they’d ever wanted. Since the two women met at summer choir camp, LBT has weathered labels closing, the death of a spouse, a slow climb and a bit of controversy, while consistently making fearless choices.

As the hits accumulated—“Boondocks,” “Girl Crush,” “Pontoon,” “Tornado,” “Day Drinking” and now “Better Man”—artists from John Mellencamp to Pharrell Williams reached out to collaborate, Lindsey Buckingham shared an episode of CMT’s Crossroads, and Miranda Lambert tapped them for her yearning (and Vocal Event-winning) “Smoking and Drinking.” LBT have won a pair of Grammys and own the Vocal Group categories at the various country music awards shows—as well as regularly populating the Album, Song and Single categories.

Their latest LP, The Breaker, is easily their strongest work in a career of genre-pushing songs and singles. Since signing with Sandbox Entertainment’s Jason Owen, the group has been turning up in fascinating places—cooking shows, clothing lines and books—but it always remains about the music. With a first-ever residency at the Ryman Auditorium underway, Little Big Town took time out of a busy schedule to assess the strengths, faith, hope and music that have brought them here.

There is no act in modern country music that has your against-all-odds, nine-lives ability for survival. It’s uncanny.
Jimi Westbrook: I would say we are definitely scrappers and fighters and strivers.
Phillip Sweet: Early on, we all looked at each other and said, “We aren’t going to let somebody be the boss of this. We are going to—no matter what—make sure it comes down to us. And we are going to keep it alive.”
Karen Fairchild: No matter what happened, we never talked about quitting. I remember one truck stop, 16 years ago, driving all night to get to Boston. It was 2am, and Kimberly said, “What are we doing?” It was crazy—not in a bad way, but more of a “How are we going to do this?” Because it’s hard, and we ran into a lot of stuff. But there was never an option to quit.

Was there ever a moment when it felt like it wasn’t going to happen for you?
KF: There were maybe moments. Early on, when I’d left a party in town or a show, and success was so close but so far away, I cried a lot of quiet tears in private. I think we all did at different times.

What did success look like to you back then?
KF: I remember thinking, “If I could only have health insurance and a car that started in the rain.” The bus used to drop me off, the short time we had one before we lost our record deal; if it was raining, the van or the bus would have to take me to my apartment. I’d have to leave my car in the Kroger parking lot and come back when it was dry.
Kimberly Schlapman: From the first time we struck a chord in my living room in the fall of 1998, there was a bond between us. The way our voices sounded together was something else, and we were all addicted to the chemistry of it.
KF: We were just four young kids, with dreams and very lofty goals and expectations, trying to figure it out. But we loved listening to each other sing. From the very first chord, there was this buzz you get from hearing those harmonies.
JW: We knew—at all those times—we had so much to offer, and we felt we’d never had our chance, so we would become more determined. And we were also protectors of the music. Six months into your career, to make the decision to ask out of a record deal? That’s crazy—but that was our confidence and belief in what we had to offer.

Ultimately, it turned out more than all right. And what’s most heartening is that it seems like it was the music that pushed you guys forward.
JW: That’s where our belief came from—our love of music. We wanted to make great music, music that matters.
PS: We push ourselves, or try to. We’ve had people come up to us and say, “You could sing the phonebook and make it sound pretty,” but that wouldn’t feel good to us. We don’t wanna go somewhere obvious.
Schlapman: That’s been intentional. [laughs]. There are songs on the radio that have been huge hits, but they just didn’t say as much as we wanted, or they didn’t go somewhere musically. Because that’s important to us.

It shows. You guys draw people to you—from Pharrell Williams to John Mellencamp, David Nail to Miranda Lambert. As different as those artists are, you wear them like all like a second skin.
JW: You brought up John Mellencamp. When we came out of those sessions, we were changed. That was a marked moment. We were on a couch in a studio, being challenged by him to be a better group, better artists.
PS: He was railing at us: “You don’t need to be cutting that fluffy shit. You need to be cutting ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,’ songs that matter.” His pushing us really did make us stronger.

One of the things that stuck out: “Boondocks” was a call to pride, a real statement of being Southern and down with it.
KF: If you’d asked us what kind of music we made 18 years ago, we’d have said, “We do Southern American music—driven by an acoustic guitar.” That was who we were. And we wrote “Boondocks” almost out of spite. When we first started, people would look at us, and say, “They look like some band a producer put together. Let’s dress them like the cast of Friends—it’ll be huge.” And we wrote that song to really tell people who we were.
Schlapman: “Boondocks” always has been and always will be that song that gets people really excited. It’s the most prideful for sure, because for everyone, where you come from, you’re really proud of it. With a few exceptions, I know. But for us, when we wrote that, we were out to prove who we were. People had so many questions because of how we looked, and that song answered them all [laughs].

You all look very fashion-forward, yet you’re really the embodiment of the modern South. Beyond the clichés, you bring this fresh face to what it is to be Southern.
KS: I think it comes from our bones—we were all raised by Southern people, with those roots and those values. That informs everything we do, and there’s not any way around that. It wouldn’t be authentic.
PS: I feel like that came through even more on this record. That’s who we are; that’s our heart. And it comes out in the songs. We grew up as conservative as you can imagine, as small-town and religious, as you’d think—although one of us didn’t. But those values? It’s everything to us.

On the heels of a pretty freewheeling project with Pharrell, The Breaker returns you to Jay Joyce. It’s more focused, and yet it’s arguably your broadest record to date.
JW: We love working with Jay, because he believes in music and it’s where he comes from too. With this record, all the good and bad, we’re more comfortable in our skin—and what we have to offer—and I think you hear it.
KF: Every record is a photo book of our lives, and a time capsule. Maybe because of the Pharrell record, which was so free and different from the way we’d made records, we came back. With Jay, all things are possible, and there are all these layers and effects, and why not?
Schlapman: He was so free and open in the studio, just throwing out ideas and trying things. He chased any idea. It really gave us a whole new freshness in the studio with Jay. We were inspired in a new way, had a different kind of confidence—and he captured that, really put it to good use.

KF: Take “Happy People.” We always thought that song was really profound—especially with what’s going on in the world. It’s very simple when you listen, but Jay had a vision. There’s that train groove underneath; the linear loopiness of the drum beat. It was so many different things and ideas. Jay’s a master of taking all those ideas and all this music that seeps in, and creating something unlike anything else.
PS: I love “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old.” It was written around the time my sister passed away, and the bridge reminds me of my family and all the pieces of going through it together. But there’s so much hope to it, so much light.
JW: And the cousin to that feeling is “Night on Our Side,” the living in that moment. Maybe you’re going to live forever for just a moment, just for tonight. There’s such a feeling of freedom and happiness, to be so in the moment. And the harmonies and the track just hold that. I love the bridge: “Who says we can’t defy gravity? Let’s start a revolution.”

Songs have always been really important for you. Whether it was “Pontoon” really pushing you to the next level, or “Girl Crush” creating…I don’t even know what.
KF: When you connect on a real level, like “Girl Crush” did, or “Boondocks,” which made people feel pride. You might be someone’s theme song, or the only way they can access their heartbreak.
PS: And with “Girl Crush,” I think saying it in those ways makes people reconsider.
JW: It wasn’t hard to understand the metaphor.
PS: I remember thinking, “Wow! Really?! This proves people aren’t really listening to the songs.”
Schlapman: Honestly, it hurt my feelings. We don’t care to push any agenda on people. We were trying to identify with people who were deeply hurt—and we’ve all been there—and show that pain.
JW: It’s also us wanting to push other people to be more accepting, to push their boundaries a little and how they see the world. We all have our darker sides, that’s life in general, but you realize you can look at everything with love and see that instead.
Schlapman: And then, as light as “Pontoon” is, I was at the FedEx place and this mother came up to me. She told me how much the song means to their family, because it’s about a boat, but it’s about their family and roots and making memories. Those things in the world are precious to people—and it reminds you.

And then there’s the song from Taylor Swift. What’s it like to get a song from Taylor?
PS: We couldn’t get enough of that melody; it just entranced us all. While we were out on the road with Luke Bryan, we were playing it all the time in our dressing room. He was like, “You better get back home and cut that.”
JW: What a great country chorus. It proves she can do anything. And she’s never done that, never sent another artist a song. I wanna think she had a vision.
PS: Yeah, it was an email, just like it would be from any songwriter friend. “Hey, I know you’re in the process of making a record; I’ve got this song I’d like you to consider. I can hear your harmonies all over it.”
JW: She knew she wasn’t gonna cut it. She’s such a musical person, so creative and always inside the music. So she had a vision.

It’s been a massive #1, but it was decided not to reveal her identity.
JW: The reason we were quiet is simple. She’s the biggest pop star in the world, and there are certain things that come with that. It’s a beautiful song, the record is beautiful—especially with Karen’s rich, lush vocal—and we wanted people to hear that. But when Taylor writes a song called “Better Man,” everybody wants to know who it is. So for her, and for the record, we thought we’d wait to tell people who it was. Taylor thought it was a great idea too. She wanted to know how the song would be taken.

It’s fascinating that Taylor even wrote a paper on you guys for school. Do you know what grade she got on it?
PS: She’s such an overachiever, I’m sure she got an A+++.
JW: I’m inclined to wonder what the teacher thought, if he even knew who we were. It was about perseverance, and I wonder what he made of that—a group he’d never heard of.

LBT are the first artists doing a residency at the Ryman. We talked about how you represent the modern South, but you’re also lifting up its past.
KF: We take being Opry members very seriously, and doing this residency is part of it. Handing off the tradition to the next generation: you look at Bill Anderson, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and you think you’re part of that. Brad Paisley called us “the Guardians of the Opry,” and that was maybe the ultimate compliment. The traditions of it, like sitting around the dressing rooms singing. We do that a lot [with] Luke Bryan, Dustin Lynch, even Blake Shelton, just sitting around singing old country songs.

At the end of the day, it’s the chemistry, isn’t it?
Schlapman: We’ve always given each other hope. When it was flailing for so many years, and nobody really cared what we were doing, we had each other. We had nothing else, but so many times, we’d find ourselves looking at each other, going, “How’d we get here?” And we’d laugh.
KF: And when one of us was struggling, there were three other people to carry the load. It helps.
PS: Music, too. It’s beyond anything else out there. It touches people’s lives, lifts them up, motivates them like nothing else. It’s not easy. If you don’t love it, you won’t last. But us? It’s why we’re still climbing on buses and getting up early and making it the energy that our lives run on.
Schlapman: We believe in that, also. If we have a mantra or philosophy, it’s that there’s always hope. Maybe we were forced to be all heart because there was no sensation. But if it had been a faster journey, maybe some of the heart might’ve fallen off. After everything, we are who we are. We’re OK with it. Hopefully, the people are too.