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Entertainment News

Sunday, 15 July, 2007 1:56 PM

Little Big Town: Music, Momentum and Mellencamp

PHOTO BY KRISTIN BARLOWE

Equity Music Group recording artist Little Big Town.

By Phyllis Stark
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

For Little Big Town, the creative process never stops, not even in the bathroom.

Take group member Karen Fairchild, who recently came up with a verse and chorus of a new song while showering at a hotel. Worried about losing the idea, she hollered for her husband and band mate, Jimi Westbrook, to bring her something to record on. He soon produced a cell phone set to "video" mode and - given her wet and naked state - laughingly advised her to turn it toward the wall.

"So I recorded in the shower," Fairchild recounted. "You can hear water dripping and the whole verse and chorus, and all you can see is tile."

That's typical of this hard charging band's "always on" work ethic. In 2006, they did about 220 tour dates, sandwiching key media opportunities including "CMT Crossroads" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in between. They also found time to land two CMA Awards nominations, two GRAMMY nominations and celebrate RIAA Gold certification of their Equity Music Group album, The Road to Here. The album has since gone Platinum.

In other 2006 milestones, The Road to Here topped Billboard's all-genre year-end list of top independent albums, and the band was named Billboard's independent artist of the year. Their first hit single, "Boondocks," sold more than 100,000 in digital downloads, scoring the band a Gold digital certification from the RIAA.

In the midst of all that, they found time to sing backing vocals on eight tracks from John Mellencamp's recently-released Freedom's Road album, including the single "Our Country," which was featured in a national ad campaign for Chevrolet. Little Big Town toured with Mellencamp as the opening act for his spring 2006 tour.

Westbrook was shocked when he got a call from Mellencamp asking the band to record with him because even though Little Big Town had performed "Pink Houses" with him every night on stage, Mellencamp had never really spoken to them. "I didn't even know if he knew my name," Westbrook said.

Over the course of recording with him, however, the band members say they became friends and developed a new level of respect for the mercurial Mellencamp. "He's a real man of action," Fairchild said. "He has some strong opinions and strong political views. Not that we share all of them, but you have to admire him because he's an activist. He's not just some guy who spews off at the mouth and then doesn't go do something about it. He really gets out there and tries to make a difference."

In June, Little Big Town returns for a second consecutive year to perform, at CMA Music Festival. Also this year, Little Big Town hit the road with an artist sure to remember their names - Martina McBride - for three months beginning in mid-April. And, they're trying to slow down their schedule enough to finish recording their third album, due from Equity Music Group in the fall.

Repeating the successful formula used on The Road to Here, they'll once again co-produce the new album with their songwriting collaborator, Wayne Kirkpatrick, in his Nashville-area studio.

"It's too good a place of safety and creativity to not do it again," Fairchild said of Kirkpatrick's studio.
Added band member Phillip Sweet, "I'm looking forward to going to work in that environment with that same group [of musicians] because there's a well full of creativity there."

In that environment, said Westbrook, "It's easier to open yourself up and expose your guts."

While the recording and writing process will be the same, the band's attitude and confidence level is completely different this time around. Before recording The Road to Here, Little Big Town had been dropped by Sony Music Nashville after the one album they had recorded for that label became both a commercial and critical disappointment.

Thus, when they went into the studio with Kirkpatrick they were a bit beaten down and their confidence was shaky. As the process of recording that album wore on, however, that confidence rose as their sound and direction became defined.

"We were so second guessing our every move for a little while," said Fairchild of that time. "Toward the back half of the record where we got more confident, but the front half we kept going 'Gosh, is this right? Are we on the right path?' Now, we really know and, of course, now we've had some affirmation that we were on the right path."

Sweet said their success over the past year has provided, "a clarity of direction about who we are. It's helped us define our 'thing' a little bit more."

The band's roadwork has also boosted its collective confidence. "Night after night it just solidifies, this is us. This is our voice,'" Westbrook said.

Band member Kimberly Roads anticipates some happier tunes this time around. "When we wrote [songs for] The Road to Here, we were all at very low points in our lives," she said. "Now we're not, so it'll be interesting to see what comes out."

Westbrook also thinks the album can't help but have an upbeat feel overall. "It's a positive time in all of our lives and that's going to come through."

In the midst of a crazy year, members of Little Big Town found time to wed, including Fairchild and Westbrook, who surprised fans with their news after having kept their romance secret.

Another surprise wedding took place in late November when Roads married longtime friend Stephen Schlapman on a private island in the Caribbean. Schlapman had already quit his job to come out on the road with the band and handle merchandise sales. It was announced in late February that the couple is expecting their first child later this year.

The last single member of the band, Sweet, married Rebecca Arthur in late March.

Despite being able to travel with spouses, working the road as hard as Little Big Town does isn't always pleasant, as the band learned last summer when it played a string of county fairs in rainy, muddy conditions.

"Everywhere we went it was a mud pit," Fairchild recalled. "The conditions would be horrible and we felt so sorry for the fans. They would be drenched and muddy. Then we would get out there and we would have a ball and they would have a ball. The two hours on the stage is completely cool," she said. "It's managing the other 22 that can be a challenge."

Still, the band enjoys life on the road. "It's like going to camp with your friends," Sweet said. "You get on the big bus and you all pile up together. The living conditions are a little tight, but you do it because you love it."

"Everybody has hard jobs," Roads added. "When you look at ours, it ain't hard."

After years of struggling, the band has trouble pulling back on its tour dates, even to write and record a new album.

"If we were to really slow down a whole lot we'd be nervous," Westbrook said. "It's still hard to say 'no' when the offers come in."

"For eight years we sang for free and we really didn't know you could make money singing," Fairchild explained. "It wasn't three years ago when we were begging someone to book us."

"We wanted this really bad," Roads said. "We worked for many, many years and when the momentum began, we were afraid to say 'no' to anything because we wanted it so bad for so long."

"When children come, we may pare it back a little bit," Fairchild said of their tour schedule. Until then, it's full steam ahead.

A popular misconception outside the music industry is that as soon as an act lands a record deal and puts out a successful album, they are instantly wealthy. That is, of course, far from reality, especially when any profits must be split among four band members.

Little Big Town has seen little financial reward thus far, although that situation continues to improve. Fairchild, who has a degree in early childhood education, remembers hoping just a few years ago to one day make a school teacher's salary. Roads reports that three years ago, the band's income was below the poverty level.

"We could have applied for food stamps," Fairchild quipped. "Maybe we should get some government cheese for the bus," Sweet added. And while things have certainly improved, Fairchild said, "Last year's income tax returns were laughable. But you do what you've got to do. I'd much rather make music and be poor and happy."

Now that the band is hot, they've recently gotten offers from other labels trying to poach them. Some offers are from the same label executives who passed on the band when they were shopping for a new label deal after leaving Sony. But all four band members emphatically say they have no desire to move on.

"The great thing about where we are with Equity is we make every decision," Fairchild said. "We sit as a team and hear input from the knowledge that's in the room, but then ultimately [label President] Mike [Kraski] will look at us and go 'What's the single going to be?'"

"We're not going to go anywhere else and get that," Westbrook said. Meanwhile, as the band celebrates Platinum sales for The Road to Here, they're getting help from an unlikely place. Fairchild's parents regularly visit retail stores and check the CD stock. If they can't find their daughter's album, they'll go into what Fairchild calls "covert operations" mode, asking to speak to the store's music buyer, then reporting their findings to the label's sales team.

With supporters like that, double Platinum sales can't be far away.

On the Web: www.littlebigtown.com

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