Karen Fairchild, Kimberley Roads (now Schlapman), Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet have their roots in Southern Christian vocal group Truth and KarenLeigh. Since they were determined to concentrate on close harmony and multiple lead vocal styling their progress was initially slow since there was a ceretain resistance to that approach in the early 2000s. An early deal with Mercury fell through but the legendary Monument label in Nashville snapped up their self-titled 2002 debut. Working in tandem with producers Blake Chancey (Combine Music, Dennis Linde, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White et al) and Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Big & Rich, Lady Antebellum) Little Big Town emerged with a completely satisfying and finished sound that gave us “Don’t Waste My Time” and “Everything Changes”. A move to Equity resulted in The Road to Here, a slow-burner that eventually went Platinum and signalled the emergence of a major act with Grammy winning potential. Adored by long time fans for its pure country licks this set features star sidemen Ron Block, Jerry Douglas, Dan Dugmore, Gordon Kennedy and multi-instrumental wizard Wayne Kirkpatrick who sit behind the visceral power of those four sublime voices. If you haven’t discovered them yet then try “Bring It On Home” and “Good as Gone” – down home balladry doesn’t get more epic. Think Desperadomeets Rumours and sink into the plush comfort of real modern country.
By 2007 and A Place To Land Little Big Town had found their soul mate in producer/player Kirkpatrick and the results are thrilling. A huge hit on country, pop and independent charts this album breaks new lyrical territory with “Novocaine” and “Only What You Make It” and Karen Fairchild is on scintillating form. A must-hear album this is best discovered with the Reissue Bonus Tracks, including “Life in a Northern Town”, Good Lord Willing” and a cover of Abra Moore’s cult classic “Four Leaf Clover”.
The Reason Why (2010) doesn’t tinker with the formula but it enhances the harmonic bliss register on “Little White Church” and “Kiss Goodbye”, both molten country soul gems. New theatrical elements can be heard too on “Rain on a Tin Roof” (as heard on Julie Roberts’ debut album) and Westbrook’s up-tempo “Runaway Train”.
Song writing is shared out on Tornado (2012) and a change of producer to Jay Joyce (The Wallflowers, Emmylou Harris, Eric Church, Crowded House, John Hiatt, Iggy Pop) is justified by a thoroughly up to dare sound incorporating Moog Taurus bass pedals, plenty of keyboards texture and Joyce’s considerable contribution on guitars and programming. Everything else remains hunky dory and the album topped Country albums chart for a month, going Platinum and siring the smash Grammy winning “Pontoon” which is about, what else, having a party on a pontoon. Also check out “Your Side of the Bed” for a tense emotional moment and the crisp message number “Sober”.
The most recent disc is Pain Killer featuring classy tracks from LBT and associates like Lori McKenna, Brent Cobb, Ross Copperman and that fine Australian guitarist and songwriter Jedd Hughes. Key numbers are “Girl Crush”, “Day Drinking” (the polar opposite to “Sober”) and the title track, not about drink or drugs but emotional dependency.
The Road to Here, A Place To Land, The Reason Why and Tornado are also available in the Four Album Collectionformat. You may be interested to know that Karen Fairchild has her own collection - inspired by her dress sense and called Fair Child - that reflects her life-long passion for design. Karen showcases a unique fusion of sexy, bold pieces with vintage Nashville elements woven throughout each garment. Kimberly Schlapman has also been busy with her Southern home cooking recipe book Oh Gussie! where she shares soul-pleasing recipes and soul-stirring stories from her roots in the Appalachian foothills of north Georgia, her travels on tour with the band, and from the life she loves back home in country music’s capital.
With a major Spring/Summer/Fall US tour just starting and ACM Nominations in the pipeline these are great times for Little Big Town.
Westbrook is fully recovered from vocal chord surgery and according to Fairchild (the pair are husband and wife) his range is even broader. Fans can expect to hear the difference on the group’s next album, which they’ve already begun writing. “We’re writing some things that I think showcase it. I mean, why not? We always want to do things we’ve never done before.” In particular, “We want it to sound like what we do live.”
Expect to hear something new and LBT brilliant later this year.
Words: Max Bell
Little Big Town have long been compared to Fleetwood Mac, usually due to their lush harmonies and taste for sun-kissed melodic pop. If that analogy holds water -- and it does -- then Pain Killer is Little Big Town's Tusk, the record where the group bends, twists, and reshapes expectations of what the band can do. Coming after the sweet, shiny Tornado, the restless over-saturation in Killer is something of a shock. As pure description, the elements sound strictly mainstream: there are gnarled, distorted guitars, flirtations with electronics, thick walloping rhythms, everything that would seemingly amount to a full-fledged arena-country crossover. Instead of following a predictable pattern, the quartet embarks on a series of detours, seizing each individual track as an opportunity to veer a little further off course. While there's none of the frenzied madness that pulsates underneath Tusk, Little Big Town do slide into a bit of minor-key madness on "Faster Gun" and have to hold their tongue on "Quit Breaking Up with Me"; otherwise they'd spit out profanity. That mischievousness is intertwined with aural adventure on Pain Killer: there's a sense that the group members are goading each other on, daring their bandmates to dabble in a bit of reggae ("Pain Killer"), to add a whistle to a chorus ("Day Drinking"), to write a swaying slow dance about a "Girl Crush," or to turn a bit of back-porch picking into a funky stomp ("Stay All Night"). Even though this record settles into a finale of three successive folk-rock tunes -- all three softly gorgeous -- it's the previous series of left-hand tours that gives Pain Killer its kick: this is the rarest thing in contemporary country, a record with an expansive world-view delivered with a kinetic kick and infallible melodies, a record that gives no indication of where it's going upon first listen but remains compelling upon further spins, after all the dazzle dissipates and Little Big Town's craft shines through.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Two years after The Reason Why, Little Big Town returned in 2012 with Tornado, their fifth album and, justifiably, perhaps their poppiest yet. Capitalizing on the success of The Reason Why -- it topped the Billboard country charts and generated the gold hit single "Little White Church," a song that expertly spliced their down-home inclinations and passion for '70s SoCal soft rock -- Little Big Town open up their sound, once again emphasizing harmonies and melodies, encasing them in a sleek, gleaming production that pushes them ever closer to the mainstream. Some hints of purer country remain but they're slight -- apart from a fairly insistent celebration of backwoods living, the insistent two-step opener "Pavement Ends" and the tongue-in-cheek hoe-down of "Front Porch Thing" is pretty much all there is -- and the strange thing is, the harder country isn't really missed. Little Big Town are so savvy in how they update and countrify Fleetwood Mac that it's easy to be oblivious to the receding down-home tide within their music. Nobody has been quite so deft at re-creating the nimble soft rock of the Mac's '80s peak -- "Leavin' in Your Eyes" could ease onto Mirage with no problem -- but Little Big Town isn't stuck there, they've freshened up the breezy melodics and silken settings, giving the music a true modern stomp at times (when they aim for the arena they have anthems that can fill it) but always keeping those gorgeous harmonies at the forefront. Forget the limiting rubric of country-pop: this is one of the best mainstream pop albums of 2012.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Little Big Town has undergone adversity since its self-titled debut album, released by Sony's Monument Records, barely reached the country Top 40 in 2002 behind the chart singles "Don't Waste My Time" and "Everything Changes." For one thing, that sales performance was not enough to keep Monument from dropping the group. Then, group member Kimberly Roads' husband passed away, an event marked by the plaintive ballad "Lost." Two other members were divorced. No wonder, then, that it has taken them more than three years to bounce back with their second album, issued by the Nashville independent label Equity Music Group. Whether it's those troubles or just the passage of time, however, Little Big Town has improved significantly since that debut disc. Before, they seemed more an idea than a band -- two male and two female singer/songwriters whose style seemed as much influenced by '70s Southern California soft rock as by any country performers. That influence hasn't changed, really; you can't listen to "Bones," for example, without thinking of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." But the group's sound has become tighter, more focused, and more distinctive. Maybe it's experience, maybe it's the absence of the powers-that-were at Monument, and maybe it's the presence of co-producer, co-songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Wayne Kirkpatrick (the CCM artist who is the co-author of the Grammy-winning Eric Clapton hit "Change the World," among many other songs). Kirkpatrick has taken the group under his wing and overseen a record full of songs arranged to showcase the four lead vocalists in varying solos and harmony parts, backed up by roots-country instrumental tracks dominated by acoustic guitar, mandolin, and Dobro. The initial result was a Top 20 country hit with "Boondocks," which has something of a Montgomery Gentry feel to it. There's more of that sort of thing on the album, particularly in the songs written by the band with Kirkpatrick, but they still have a weakness for stringing clichés together ("This monkey on my back/Has stopped me in my tracks," goes a couplet in "Wounded"). The best songs are actually ones Kirkpatrick wrote with others and brought to the project, particularly "Live with Lonesome" and the novelty "Welcome to the Family." But even when the material is not top-drawer, the performances are, making this the album Little Big Town had in it and didn't manage to get out the first time around.
Words: William Ruhlmann
Little Big Town scored big with its second album, 2005's The Road to Here, thanks to high charting singles like "Good as Gone." Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, and Phillip Sweet fused rootsy contemporary country with acoustic and electric instruments, and their vocal harmonies inspired by Fleetwood Mac proved irresistible. A Place to Land is superior to its predecessor in every way, though: production feels more organic, the music is more sophisticated, and the lyrics more poignant. Perhaps the real secret to the success of this quartet is its secret weapon in behind-the-boards fifth member Wayne Kirkpatrick, who serves as the band's producer and songwriting partner. He's chief guitar picker, and plays just about anything with strings, as well as the clavinet and B-3. If the sound on The Road to Here is reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's glory years, A Place to Land drinks deeply from the well of the entire Southern California scene from the mid- to late '70s. It's not all regurgitation, either. Little Big Town's sound is rooted deeply in traditional, organic country music. Their songs meld seamlessly with the vocal harmonies that evoke vintage Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Eagles' earliest records.
Words: Thom Jurek
It's anybody's guess why Little Big Town's three fine singles from 2007's excellent A Place to Land failed to crack the Top 30, or why the album didn't build upon the platinum success of its predecessor, The Road to Here. That said, the bluesy roil in "Little White Church," the pre-release single from The Reason Why, LBT's fourth studio album, proves that failure was a fluke. The trademark four-part harmony that separate them from the rest of the contemporary country pack isn't the only thing: their group songwriting -- with producer and guitarist Wayne Kirkpatrick as a fifth member -- is classy, sophisticated, and doesn't rely on genre clichés. While the '70s-period Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles were clear inspirations and influences earlier, here they've been integrated into a sound that is LBT's own. The guitars are a little fiercer, the harmonies looser, and therefore more emotionally expressive; they reflect the growth in their lyrics. And even as Karen Fairchild is asserting herself as a de facto frontwoman, the contributions made by Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, Phillip Sweet and Kirkpatrick create an inseparable whole. The group wrote or co-wrote nine of the set's 12 songs, including the single, and it's their songs that shine brightest, beginning with the title-track opener. With a melody that resembles a 1960s pop song, Fairchild sings solo to a single-string electric guitar riff playing changes; the acoustic guitars fold underneath her voice and then the harmonies kick in to take the entire thing to the stratosphere. The intro harmonies on "Why, Oh Why" echo both the Louvin Brothers and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, before a nasty electric-guitar vamp, a punched-up kick drum, snare and distorted slide guitar turn this into prime, funky country-rock. "All the Way Down," introduced by a scratchy vinyl record and harmonies singing the refrain as if from the distant past backed only by a banjo, promptly shifts gears into a prime modern-country song with soaring vocals, mandolins, and an infectious hook. "Lean into It" is the stripped-down ballad that closes the album. Gentle guitars and a lonely pedal adorn Sweet's vocal, which is girded by the voices of his bandmates to provide solace during the dark hours we all endure. The Reason Why is mature, exquisitely crafted, and radio friendly; it ups the ante for contemporary country in songwriting, performance, and production (the latter by stripping away excess). It's as near to a perfectly balanced recording as one will find in the genre.
Words: Thom Jurek
Little Big Town is a vocal quartet consisting of two men and two women who sing their songs by mixing up lead vocals and harmonies, such that one may start a song only to have another take the second verse, while some other combination sings the choruses. This, of course, is not typical of country music, nor are the song arrangements, which lean heavily to a folk-rock sound with prominent acoustic guitars and rhythm section, but only touches of fiddle and steel guitar; nor, for that matter, are the songs themselves, most of them written by the group members, which tend toward a pop sensibility with their generalized romantic sentiments. In the inevitable game of describing a new act by its antecedents, one must throw out names like Fleetwood Mac rather than any specifically country artists. Actually, Little Big Town does call to mind certain country acts of the past. They may remind knowledgeable country fans of such late-'80s performers as Foster & Lloyd and Kennedy Rose, duos that earned critical kudos (especially from non-country critics), but struggled to earn a commercial footing and ultimately found greater success behind the scenes as writers. Championed by Monument Records, the same label that changed the parameters of conventional country success with the Dixie Chicks, Little Big Town may succeed by rewriting the Nashville rule book in a similar way.
Words: William Ruhlmann