Little Big Town Make a Strong Case for Prioritizing Albums
It's time to start admiring Little Big Town's longevity in this industry, but they just won't let us.
Twenty years and — with Mr. Sun now available — 10 albums after forming as a rootsy, Eagles-esque country quartet, Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet continue to defy a natural bell curve.
They "peaked" with "Boondocks" in 2005, but reached new heights with "Pontoon" in 2012. Three years later, "Girl Crush" became a genre-defining hit, and then "Better Man" reinforced their new pop-friendly style when it went No. 1 in 2017.
Single-watchers may note that the foursome only have two Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 hits, but that ignores the depth of song and creative presentations of tracks like "Happy People," "The Daughters" and "Wine, Beer, Whiskey" (No. 18 on ToC's Top 21 Songs of 2021). Perhaps only Keith Urban has guided the next generation further out to the edge of country music. At a point when most artists start adapting, Little Big Town keep growing.
"It's interesting, because I think that we all kind of sway together," Schlapman says. "We have something that we call our 'collective gut' for 20 years now, and it feels like we all kind of sway together."
"It's an ebb and flow," Westbrook tells Taste of Country when asked about the group's creative discourse.
Overcoming groupthink may be Little Big Town's greatest accomplishment. This is what happens when a creative comes to the table with a razor-sharp idea, and their peers sand down the edges to create something nobody is afraid of (the alternative is an Eagles-esque implosion). Many bands have folded after a couple of stale records. Twenty years is a long time for four people to stay married.
To talk about Little Big Town's accomplishments now would be to ignore how the 16 songs on Mr. Sun tilt their trajectory slightly upward. It's a cohesive sampling of styles that ranges from an effervescent, Laurel Canyon bop called "All Summer" to a stone-cold duet between Fairchild and her husband, Westbrook, called "One More Song."
"Baby, just one more song / What do you say / We'll just dance all around the hurt and the pain," she cries out during a chorus that elevates the ballad to perhaps one of LBT's best songs ever.
Sweet takes lead on the album's closer, "Friends of Mine," a definitive track that may answer all the questions about the band raised to this point. Maybe Mr. Sun delivers a third No. 1, or maybe it doesn't — that doesn't seem to be the point of an album more focused on unity and inspiration.
It's cheap to say they take you to church, but dang if this group doesn't make you feel like you just left one by the end of the album.
Taste of Country: More artists are getting away from the art of album making. Little Big Town still seem to prioritize albums, and Mr. Sun proves that. Why is that important to you?
Phillip Sweet: It's a body of work that lives with each other, lives together. And then when you listen to it later ... I feel like it captures something, a moment in time.
Karen Fairchild: One song just doesn't do that, you know. Listen, we love that process as well, finding that one song that connects with people, but there's something about a whole collection that represents a time in an artist's life, or in the fan's life.
That's true. When you go back after you get older, the only thing you have is the nostalgia of albums. Like, "Oh man, this is where I was in '98."
Sweet: We still relate to that so deeply.
Did you ever have anything come out on cassette?
Sweet: No, we were post-cassette.
Westbrook: But I am having to think about it.
"Whiskey Colored Eyes" kind of gives me an Eagles vibe. What were you listening to when you began recording this album?
Westbrook: I think it's just those harmonies in bands from back in the day that we just loved. When that's in your bones, it just kind of comes out I think. We wrote that song with Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally, and I think the lyric and the melody just kind of lends itself to that.
Sweet: That sound and that 12-string guitar, it's everything.
I get Scotty McCreery "Damn Strait" vibes when I hear "Song Back." What's the story of that song?
Westbrook: That was Karen and I. We wrote that with (Jason Saenz, Sara Haze and Todd Clark).
Fairchild: I didn't know that Jimi had written that title down in his notebook and I was asking them about an artist that had cut a song of mine and said, "Do you think it's gonna make her record?" They said, "I'm not sure" and I said "I want my song back then." Jason said, that's a great title.
Westbrook: And I said, "What if it was about this?" What if, in a relationship, you lost your favorite song because that was your song with him. I looked and I had written that title down in 2012.
Fairchild: Living out that idea of, you fall in love with songs and they were your songs with someone and then when you break up, you kind of lost those moments.
Finally, what are some things on your tour rider?
Schlampan: Dr. Pepper.
Westbrook: (laughs) That's a must. And the whiskey.
Schlampan: We're not very high-maintenance.
Fairchild: Well, some of us aren't. Phillip's rider is probably the most expensive on his bus.
Let's go, let's hear it.
Fairchild: He likes all of his snacky things.
Sweet: I need my snacks.
Fairchild: He needs his snacks, and he likes to make snacks at night.
Sweet: I like to eat. I like to make my own foods.
Fairchild: Like, he might literally be cooking a steak on his bus.
Schlapman: And I'll be eating Lucky Charms.
Fairchild: And the kids, the kids have their own requests. Like Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Sweet: Dolly, Kimberly's youngest, likes to come on our bus because we have a snack drawer.
Westbrook: She can reach it.
Sweet: She can get lollipops and she loves the snacks.
Fairchild: I'm going to Phillip's bus (laughs).