Country music is afraid of growing old. That is how it sounds anyway, as the past few years have seen a steady stream of songs, from artists in both their twenties and thirties, exalting a spring break philosophy more appropriate for, well, actual college kids. It's as if the format is determined to discover some Panama City Beach fountain of youth, where kegs never run dry, baseball hats are always in fashion and the music can never, ever be too loud.
Little Big Town's sixth studio album Pain Killer, out today, offers an alternative to that mindset. Over 13 tracks, the Grammy-winning quartet deliver proof that country music can still be a mature affair. Not boring, mind you — mature. And while songs like Pain Killer's debut single "Day Drinking" may subscribe to some of those lyrical pursuits, they do so without any too-young-for-your-years slang or embarrassing clichés. In short, the members of Little Big Town — all of them in their forties — are not rollin' up, slidin' in or leanin' back.
"Artists like Eric Church give us courage. Miranda Lambert gives us courage. There are lots of people that inspire me that commercial popular music can mean more and not feel so trite," says Karen Fairchild, who with husband Jimi Westbrook, Phillip Sweet and Kimberly Schlapman formed Little Big Town in 1998.
Often compared to Fleetwood Mac for their ethereal four-part harmonies, the vocal group watched its career start and stop since releasing its self-titled debut album on an indie label in 2002. In 2005, Little Big Town had their first taste of success with the breakout single "Boondocks" and "Bring It on Home" from the album The Road to Here, but the 2007 follow-up A Place to Land failed to produce any Top 20 singles. They recaptured the fire with 2010's The Reason Why — their first Number One album on the country charts, released on their current label, Capitol Records Nashville — and its lead single "Little White Church," but the next two singles failed to crack the Top 40.
Enter producer Jay Joyce. A rock & roll producer at heart, Joyce oversaw albums by the Wallflowers and Cage the Elephant, and has been Eric Church's creative partner-in-crime since the start of Church's recording career. Enlisted by Little Big Town for their 2012 album Tornado, Joyce added an edge to the band's pristine sound and helped garner the foursome their first Number One single with "Pontoon." The success of Tornado and its buoyant single scored the band their first Grammy and catapulted them to the fore of country's vocal groups.
Hot off the success of Eric Church's adventurous The Outsiders, Joyce reteamed with Little Big Town for Pain Killer, hunkering down with the group at his converted church-studio in East Nashville. For some sessions, the group would separate guys vs. girls, with Westbrook and Sweet writing in the former house of worship's makeshift basement hookah parlor, and Fairchild and Schlapman collaborating in the glow of the stained-glass windows.
"They were in the angelic church portion of the writing space and we were down in the dungeon, in a smoke-infested hookah lounge," says Westbrook of the heaven and hell writing environments. He and Sweet came up with the moody Wild West-for-wild-love metaphor "Faster Gun," while the women penned Pain Killer's feathery closing track "Silver and Gold."
"Jay brings wildness," says Fairchild of their producer, who would often roam about while the band was recording, playing whatever instrument he happened upon. "He's such a creative guy and he likes to see if we can pull one over on ourselves again: Can we do it better than we did last time? He's always up for the chase. But he's very confident. He thinks of things you'd never think of."
"He's like a rock & roll guru, a Zen punk rocker," adds Sweet.
The result is Little Big Town's most eclectic album yet. While other artists are adding hip-hop and rap elements to their brand of country music, LBT has eschewed trends and dug deeper, exploring reggae on the album's title track, Celtic folk on "Live Forever" and hard rock on "Save Your Sin," Schlapman's coming-out moment.
The curly-haired Southern belle of the group — she even hosts her own cooking series — Schlapman unleashes a ferocity yet unheard on the compact, under-three-minute "Save Your Sin."
Schlapman is too demure to ever spit — she recoils when Fairchild tells a story about Patti Smith intentionally hocking one up on stage — but she does relish the idea of cutting loose on "Save Your Sin." "I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to go there," she says. "I grew up on bluegrass music, and to me that's just a bluegrass song gone crazy."
"Turn the Lights On" is equally untethered, a sonic blast with a huge chorus. Fairchild, Westbrook, Schlapman and Sweet wrote it with Joyce and writers Natalie Hemby and Jeremy Spillman during a late-night, wine-fueled mass brainstorming session in a rural Tennessee cabin.
"When there are so many writers in the room, you get a little worried that if you blurt out an idea that you feel pretty confident about, that it's going to get watered down or changed into something not where you wanted it to go," Fairchild says. "But we started talking about ideas and I knew it was the perfect time. Jay was playing his little resonator guitar, and then we started talking to Natalie and Jeremy about coming to [Nashville] to chase the dream and getting knocked down. So many of our friends have quit. They're sitting at home in their apartments and they cannot find the courage to get back up. 'Turn the lights on' means 'wake up!' Lift your hands up and go for it."
Which is what Little Big Town committed themselves to with Pain Killer. Not content to release "Pontoon Part II," the members refused to let radio play dictate what they wrote and recorded. That said, they are enjoying their hard-earned popular success and are keenly aware of the importance of country radio to their career.
Admits Westbrook, "I think we've always been trying to walk that line."
"If we want to pay the bills, we have to think about radio," says Schlapman, "because that's what sells the records and makes people want to come to your shows. It's part of our job."
"And radio has been good to us," adds Fairchild.
"Oh yeah," echoes her fellow distaff bandmate, "but we also have to be able to express ourselves fully, and sometimes that goes beyond what will be played on radio."
"We couldn't determine our song selection based on, 'Well, we can't do that because that probably won't work on radio,'' says Sweet. "That confines you."
"It's a lot more fun to be popular," says Fairchild candidly. "But it's super fun to be popular and respected. It's fun to have voicemails on your phone from your peers in the business saying, 'I can't wait for this album to come out.' Or 'that inspired me.' So I want to believe that it can all happen. And outside of our format is the example. Look at Adele. Who would have thought a piano ballad would be on the radio and sell 20 million records worldwide?"
Alas, that wasn't the case for one of Tornado's most critically lauded ballads. "Your Side of the Bed" was a heartbreaking duet about the increasing tension in a marriage, sung by real-life couple Fairchild and Westbrook, that stalled on the charts. When compared to the party anthems populating radio, the song was particularly downbeat and, according to radio programming wisdom, would be jarring to listeners making their daily commutes.
"It's like gearing down. And they don't want to gear down. Radio doesn't want to. But a song like 'Your Side of the Bed' defined careers. It's the moment you remember on the awards shows, those great country duets that were slow and sad. That's what we defined our country artists by," says Westbrook, pausing to consider. "Maybe it was too painful. People don't want to admit that much."
In mood then, "Girl Crush" is Pain Killer's "Your Side of the Bed." A stop-you-in-your-tracks ballad sung by Fairchild, "Girl Crush" takes the decidedly modern phrase and turns it upside-down, using it to convey the classic country-song theme of unrequited love. "I gotta girl crush, hate to admit it," the narrator sings, admitting her attraction to her man's lover: "I wanna taste her lips, yeah, cause they taste like you." It is at once provocatively sexy and utterly sad.
Written by Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey, "Girl Crush" came to Little Big Town almost by accident.
"Liz said, 'You'll never cut this, but you have to hear it,'" recalls Sweet.
"That's when you know you're onto something," says Fairchild, who says the group played it for Blake Shelton. As a superstar of the format, Shelton has listened to his share of song pitches. "He lifted up his hands in the air like 'Touchdown!' and said, 'I never heard that.'"
"He said, 'Do you know how hard that is? That I never heard that before?'" says Westbrook. "It's so rare these days that you hear a turn on a hook and you go, 'I did not see that coming.'"
"Here's the chance to break it up and change it up. It doesn't have to be the same thing all the time. If we could get a 6/8 waltz back on radio that talks about having a girl crush…" muses Fairchild of the song's ambitions, which Joyce thinks should be released as a single.
The reality is that "Girl Crush" being played on today's radio would be jarring — but not because of its sad song nature. Rather, like the album on which it appears, it is distinguished by being thought provoking and experienced. And like the artists who recorded it, it is unashamedly mature.
"I feel like we know what we're talking about," says Sweet of where Little Big Town is in their evolution. "It's not like we're pretending."
"We have our own opinion now," Fairchild says. "As we have been brought up in the business, we've always been strong, but we've been manipulated. Now, this is how we feel, this is what we're doing. There's a lot of that in this record."
"And we've lived through a lot of music too, so we draw from a lot. If you think something [on Pain Killer] sounds like Seventies funk, it's because it is," Westbrook says.
"It makes me feel so good that we made this record on a major label, as a commercial release, and we made art," concludes Sweet. "We didn't just put out some shit."
Which is the sweet spot that all artists, whether they admit it or not, would like to reside: Writing and recording songs that rise above the fluff of pop-country, but could still have a home on country radio. If only they are given…
"The chance," smiles Fairchild.