Country quartet Little Big Town harmonizes their way to the top
By Stratton LawrenceSpecial to The Post and Courier – Thursday, May 9, 2013
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‘Who said anything about skiing?” Karen Fairchild asks in Little Big Town’s hit song, “Pontoon,” which goes on to say, “Floating is all I want to do. You can climb the ladder, just don’t rock the boat while I barbecue.”
The song about boating and catching rays became the party anthem of the summer last year, despite, or thanks to, lyrics like, “Reach your hand down into the cooler; don’t drink it if the mountains aren’t blue.”
After becoming the group’s first song to reach No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart in September, the track went on to take the Grammy for Best County Duo/Group Performance this year, beating out competition that included a Don Williams song featuring Alison Krauss.
The song “Tornado” from the band’s 2012 album by the same name followed suit, reaching the top spot in March.
Little Big Town has four singers: husband and wife Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild along with Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet. The two women met while in college at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., before moving to Nashville, Tenn., where all four members live today.
Westbrook joined the band in 1998, followed by Sweet a year later.
Although the various members play some guitar, Little Big Town is primarily a vocal group, with each singer taking turns at center stage. The result is a clean, polished style of country music that’s sometimes dubbed “Nash-wood,” mashing up the glitz of an L.A. pop group with the twang of the South.
“I think it’s a super cool thing that’s going on: the diversity that’s happening in country music right now,” Westbrook said of the genre’s move toward pop. “I’m sure a lot of the traditionalists thumb their nose at that kind of thing, but I think it’s great. I hear a lot of people talking about country music, and they’ll say, ‘It’s all pop now.’ When I was growing up, country music was pop music. It was popular music, and you had our bands that crossed over and were played on mainstream radio. It’s always happened like that, and people forget.”
Westbrook cites groups like The Oak Ridge Boys as strong childhood influences, along with the “Southern California harmonies” of bands like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
The most identifiably “country” song on “Tornado” is likely “Front Porch Thing,” which begins with a harmonized sing-along about “strummin’ on my old six-string.” Even after it drops into a chorus about how playing music kills the “country blues,” there’s the twang of a dobro floating over the rock drum beat.
“Our music is kind of this melting pot, and all of those influences flavor what we do,” said Westbrook. “I think some of the best music happening in any genre right now is happening in country music, and I’m proud to be a part of that. It brings more people into the format.”
Although Little Big Town’s sound may have as much in common with George Michael as it does with George Jones, it does benefit from the help of notable country songwriters like Lori McKenna, who helped pen the tunes “Sober” and the group’s current single, “Your Side of the Bed.”
The latter doesn’t hide any of its meaning behind poetry; it’s direct enough that most couples who have watched distance grow between them in a relationship can relate. Fairchild brought a melody to McKenna, who helped fill in the words. The song is sung as a duet between Fairchild and her husband, Westbrook, who sees the tune as representing “one of the great traditions of country music: sad songs.”
“It tugs at your heart strings a little bit,” he continues. “What I love about that song is its rawness and honesty. If you’ve ever been in any kind of relationship, you’ve experienced these moments, whether it’s for years or just for hours in a day. It’s natural because of the life we lead and how busy everyone gets. There’s just not always time to connect like we should.”
In a statement on the band’s website, Fairchild concurs: “There are times in a relationship where you allow things to come between you, so much that it feels like an incredibly long way back to each other,” she writes. “It’s a lonely place to be, especially when you’re lying right next to someone you love.”
For some fans, the fact that the song is sung by a married couple may add to its meaning and poignancy.
“I think that’s probably one of the most intriguing parts for people; that we’re married and singing lyrics like that,” said Westbrook, who admits that there are nights on stage where he and Fairchild may have been having normal marital frustrations before getting on stage. “It makes the song that much better that night.”
Fortunately, Little Big Town has coped well with maintaining family and relationships on the road. Sweet and Schlapman have spouses of their own who frequently travel with the band. Each of the three families has a child, and Fairchild and Westbrook’s son, Elijah, is a near-constant companion on tour.
“They’re all growing up like siblings. It has its challenges, but we try to make it work the best that we can, and it’s a lot of fun having our families out on the road,” Westbrook said. “The bus becomes your home away from home. But it’s not just ‘show up and sing’ when you get to a town. There’s a lot that goes on during the day.”
With their families literally growing up together, the four singers are able to cultivate a relationship that translates into cohesiveness in the studio. The track “On Fire Tonight” from “Tornado” is an example of a collaborative effort that emerged spontaneously, along with the help of songwriter Luke Laird (who also co-wrote “Pontoon”).
“That song was a last-minute thing that was born out of this jam that was happening in the studio at the time,” Westbrook explains. “Songwriting is something that we love, and you definitely do feel like they’re your babies. Getting in the studio and watching them come alive is a pretty amazing process.”
Shooting for the stars
When Westbrook spoke with Charleston Scene last week, the group was preparing to take the stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for its first-ever gig headlining the legendary venue. This summer, the members will hit the road with Keith Urban, but for now, including the show Thursday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, they’re enjoying being at the top of the bill.
“It’s just unbelievable. We’ve been working a long time for this,” said Westbrook, who grew up in the small town of Sumiton, Ala. “This last year has been the most amazing time for this band, ever since we put out ‘Pontoon’ last spring.”
One song on “Tornado,” “Self Made,” stands out to Westbrook because of its message that reflects the long road Little Big Town took to reach the top of the charts.
The band achieved minor hits with the tracks “Don’t Waste My Time” and “Everything Changes” from the 2002 eponymous debut, but the subsequent dissolution of its label led the band to seek side work to make ends meet.
In 2005, the group made its first real splash with the song “Boondocks,” from the sophomore release “The Road to Here.” “A Place to Land” in 2007 continued its tradition of richly harmonizing generic heartland lyrics, but it didn’t have the effect of its predecessor. “The Reason Why,” released in 2010, included the successful song “Little White Church,” setting the stage for “Tornado” and its titanic laid-back party groove, “Pontoon.”
When the band began its “Tornado” sessions, producer Jay Joyce instructed the members to arrive at the studio dressed as if they were going on stage, helping to set a mood of professionalism, but also encouraging them to go out and have dinner and drinks before recording.
The band adopted a motto of “Less thinking, more singing” for the sessions, perhaps revealing some of the lighthearted simplicity behind its marquee track.
“Pontoon” is not highbrow, and it’s certainly not “classic country,” but it is certified platinum (1 million copies sold). Whatever the song’s success may mean for the state of country music as a mainstream genre, it does underscore that American audiences’ primary motivator in choosing music is to provide a soundtrack for good times, including drinking beer on an aluminum boat.
For chart-topping Little Big Town, the good times are getting better by the day.