Little Big Town: Raising the High Bar of Country Harmony
By Bobby Reed
© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Millions of people sing in the shower. There’s nothing unusual about that. But for the members of Little Big Town — Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook — singing in the shower might lead to a hit single or perhaps a collaboration with their friends in Sugarland.
“The title ‘Little White Church’ was something that I had written down in my journal,” Fairchild recalled. “I thought it might be a cool story song, but I didn’t know what it was. A couple of weeks later, Kimberly and I were talking about songs we needed to write for a new album and moments we needed. One was a call-and-response moment because we’re big fans of bluegrass. The next morning I woke up, got in the shower and all of a sudden the chorus came to me. I jumped out of the shower and sang the chorus into my phone.”
She sang the now famous refrain: “‘Take me down, take me down, take me down to the little white church.’” And then she continued, “It’s a girl laying down an ultimatum to her reluctant groom, saying, ‘Get in or get out. I’m not taking care of you anymore.’ I thought the band would be into it, so I took it to them later that day. Our producer, Wayne Kirkpatrick, was writing with us that day, and the five of us finished it that afternoon.”
“Little White Church” became a landmark hit for Little Big Town and one of several triumphs the band enjoyed in 2010. In August, the band’s fourth album, The Reason Why, debuted atop the Billboard Country Albums chart. Robust first-week sales, exceeding 40,000 units, were fueled by heavy airplay for “Little White Church,” the lead single. And in December, the band earned its fourth Grammy nomination when “Little White Church” got a nod for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
They had been nominated for eight CMA Awards and three times before for Grammys, including one for a live rendition of “Life in a Northern Town,” written by Gilbert Gabriel and Nick Laird-Clowes of The Dream Academy. Their performance of the tune with Jake Owen and Sugarland (Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles) on their 2008 album A Place to Land was nominated for CMA Musical Event of the Year in 2008.
“We started singing,” Sweet recalled. “And Kristian said, ‘I can’t hear everybody, so I’ve got to get in the middle.’ Then somebody suggested the shower and Kristian said, ‘Let’s go in there!’ It sounded great.”
As the band members laughed at this memory, Westbrook added, “That shower was like an echo chamber, so everybody rehearsed in there. We love being out on the road with Sugarland because whenever we can collaborate with them onstage, it’s always a lot of fun.”
Often praised for their seamless harmonies, Little Big Town has also earned attention for its original songs. Members of the group had a hand in writing nine of the latest album’s 12 songs including the title track, “All Over Again,” “All the Way Down,” “Life Rolls On” and “You Can’t Have Everything”. “We were able to take time off from the road and really focus on making an album,” Sweet explained. “It was an amazing, creative time for the band. There’s a lot of push and pull that goes into making music, and we believe that’s what makes it interesting.”
With 1.7 million total album sales under their belts, Little Big Town is celebrating 13 years as a band. During that time, certain processes have gotten easier — but not all of them. “For this album, we wanted to branch out because the writing part has become tougher for us as a band,” Fairchild noted. “It’s because we expect more out of ourselves. We’re not as easily satisfied with lines or melodies, so it becomes a more difficult process. This time, we had set such a high standard for ourselves that we wanted to branch out and be inspired in any way possible.”
One longtime supporter of the band is Kirkpatrick, who also produced the Platinum-selling The Road to Here, released in 2005, and A Place to Land (2007 on Equity Music Group, re-released with bonus tracks in 2008 on Capitol Records Nashville). He also joined all four members to compose their breakthrough hit, “Boondocks,” co-wrote their Top 5 hit “Bring It on Home” with Greg Bieck and Tyler Hayes Bieck and collaborated with the group on six songs on the new album.
“We’ve been writing with Wayne for eight or nine years,” said Schlapman. “He was a person who, in the very beginning, really understood us and what we were going for vocally and musically. Over the years, it’s grown into a really successful musical collaboration. He’s brilliant. We’ve learned so much from him. When we write songs, we don’t always agree, but we work it out and try to figure out what’s best for the song. Wayne’s really been good for us.”
The band members have also written with numerous leading Nashville songwriters, including Luke Laird, Hillary Lindsey, Ashley Monroe, Gordie Sampson, Leslie Satcher, Jonathan Singleton, Chris Stapleton and Jon Randall Stewart. “Writing a song can happen any number of ways for us,” said Westbrook. “One of us may come in with a hook or maybe a little piece of melody that we begin with. Or it can just start with four or five of us sitting in a room, staring at each other and asking, ‘What are we going to write today?’ Some days, things come out. Other days, you’re beating your head against the wall and you go to lunch.”
All four use multiple tools to capture song ideas quickly, from smartphone apps to laptop software. “My phone is full of little eight-second ideas because I can’t remember them if I don’t sing them immediately,” Schlapman said, with a chuckle.
“For a lot of us, ideas come in the spur of the moment or in the middle of the night or in the shower,” Sweet added. “You’re not always in a place where you can actually spend time to craft that idea. So we set up writing appointments and then bring two or three different ideas for songs to that appointment. That’s the way it works for us.”
Westbrook often writes alone and then brings the results to the band to craft into another Little Big Town gem. “I definitely prefer songs that hit you out of the blue,” he explained. “Those are a lot more enjoyable to me, when you feel that inspiration instantly. My heart rate goes up and it’s exciting. You just have to go with it because if you let go of it, you may not get it back.”
Another highlight of 2010 was the CMA Songwriters Series concert at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., held in December as part of “Story Tellers and Story Keepers,” CMA’s ongoing partnership with the Library to extend its already imposing Country Music archive. Held in the Thomas Jefferson Building’s Coolidge Auditorium, the show also featured Bob DiPiero, Brett James and Lori McKenna.
“We were honored to be asked to be a part of that,” Fairchild said. “What a great way to end the year.”
“People in Nashville are kind of spoiled by those songwriters-in-the-round shows because we get to see them so often,” Schlapman observed. “But when people see it who have never seen it before, it’s a big treat.”
CMA was also instrumental in providing Little Big Town with a worldwide forum at the 2010 CMA Awards. Though they didn’t win this year, the group delivered an unforgettable moment in the telecast. Prior to announcing that Miranda Lambert’s Revolution had been named Album of the Year, Little Big Town paid tribute to the preceding year’s winner, Taylor Swift’s Fearless, by singing a segment of Swift’s “You Belong with Me” in four-part, a cappella harmony.
“We got a ton of amazing feedback about those 30 seconds,” Fairchild said. “We had lots of texts and e-mails. It was almost as if we had a full performance on the show.”
They also appeared on “CMA Country Christmas,” broadcast on ABC, singing a rousing version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and backing Sugarland on “Winter Wonderland.” Previously, on the opening segment from “CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock,” Fairchild and Schlapman had joined Sarah Buxton on vocals behind Keith Urban’s performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” broadcast in September on ABC.
Fans followed these and other adventures via the “Little Big TV” Webisodes posted at LittleBigTown.com. Topics range from the serious, such as the breaking news of their Grammy nomination, to the mundane, such as a discussion of the hair-care products that Schlapman uses on her lustrous, curly mane.
This attention to performing, writing and servicing their fan base makes Little Big Town an ideal fit at Capitol Records Nashville. “If you look at our roster, we are obviously attracted to writer/artists, so individually and collectively this band fits Capitol perfectly,” said Mike Dungan, President/ CEO, Capitol and EMI Records Nashville.
Manager John Peets of Q Prime South affirms that point. “Little Big Town is a Country band, but their sound weaves together rock ‘n’ roll and Country in a beautiful way,” he said of his clients. “It’s a sound that appeals to fans of Country, rock ‘n’ roll and even bluegrass. Regardless of the genre, great music will move both art and the industry forward.”
On the Web: www.LittleBigTown.com