Sunday, 15 July, 2007 1:56 PM
Little Big Town: Music, Momentum
BY KRISTIN BARLOWE
Music Group recording artist Little Big Town.
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
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,"
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
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
"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
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.
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