Country Quartet Little Big Town Finds Fun In Being A Foursome
Over the last decade and a half, the country quartet Little Big Town has weathered change on nearly every front. They were dropped by one record label and had another collapse underneath them, before finally being picked up by a third.
They've faced death, divorce and children. By year's end, the band had made the leap from theaters to arenas and released a sixth album, Pain Killer, which landed on several "best of 2014" lists.
Backstage at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook remembers how simple things seemed when they debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in 1999 as a baby band.
"Our very first public performance was at the Opry," Westbrook says. "We only had one guitar at that time. So it was one guitar and four voices."
With the addition of a few backing instruments, the lineup's remained the same ever since.
Great care was taken in selecting the voices in this outfit. Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman had been friends since their days in college choir in Alabama. They came to Nashville pursuing separate music careers, but surrendered those plans to form a group. Their search for singers led to Westbrook first, then to Phillip Sweet, who had to be convinced to back out of a deal of his own, says Schlapman.
"We sang with these other guys and it either didn't feel like maybe the personalities would coexist, or it didn't feel like the sound was right," Schlapman says. "But then when we sang with Jimi, instantly there was not a question that was right. Then when we went lookin' for Phillip, the same thing kinda happened."
The four of them intended to make the most of their harmonies, and take turns singing lead. Sweet and Westbrook say they weren't interested in singling out a front man or woman. Sweet says that early on some record label people said it'd be easier to get their songs heard if they had a consistent lead singer.
"But I think we never really bought into that idea," he says.
"I just remember in the beginning thinking it'd be a shame if you didn't hear those three sing," Westbrook says.
The tension between individual and collective expression used to tug on the quartet a lot more than it does now. A few years ago, they turned down the chance to record a song they loved because Schlapman says they couldn't quite wrap their heads around how to own it as a coed group.
"We literally had those conversations many years ago," Schlapman says. "We're like, 'We can't do that song, because it's too much of a female song, or it's too much of a male song.' And that's part of our freedom now."
So when songwriter friends pitched them a tangled, feminine expression of unrequited love called "Girl Crush" for the new album, they went for it. Not only that, they chose it as their current single.
Before that came a much sunnier single, "Day Drinking," that fit right in on country radio, an ode to skipping out on work to drink. Fairchild and Schlapman are self-aware enough to realize that a party tune showcases only one side of what they have to offer.
"We also talk about stuff like ... 'We just wrote "Day Drinking," maybe we should say something that means something more,' " Fairchild says. "But we also don't take ourselves too seriously."
"But we're also complex and serious too," Schlapman says. "There's four of us here; we are everything. We are every emotion."
It might seem like a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass singer would start to feel stuck in their musical roles the longer they're stuck with each other. But Fairchild thinks she and her Little Big Town band mates have figured out how to use their restlessness as creative fuel.
"The greatest thing about being in a band, and the strength of having companionship and collaboration is also the thing that makes a band break up, because then you begin to feel confined," Fairchild says. "Like, who am I as an individual, as a writer, as a performer? Just all those things that I think individually we wrestle with."
Together they've learned they can exploit the host of possibilities that come from each of them wanting to both stand out and blend in.
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