Wednesday marks a milestone for Little Big Town. The vocal quartet heads into this year's CMA Awards with five nominations — more than any other act except Eric Church, who matches them with five nods of his own.
"I've secretly always wanted to be most nominated," bandmate Kimberly Schlapman confides to Rolling Stone Country. "I've never said it out loud, but I've always been like, 'Aw, it must be great to be in that 'So-and-So is most-nominated' category.'"
For Little Big Town, achieving "So-and-So" status has been 17 years in the making — a nearly two-decade ride that's seen the group weather false starts, career setbacks and personal heartache with optimism, grace and a healthy dose of Southern grit. Those challenges have built a bond between members Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet that's as air-tight as the group's four-part harmonies.
"We just keep dreaming," says Fairchild, who sings lead on the group's nominated single "Girl Crush." "We can only hope that we can have a long career like some of our friends — like Reba."
Little Big Town will enter Wednesday's ceremony as the only group nominated for Album of the Year. Their newest release, Pain Killer, faces stiff competition from records by Kenny Chesney, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Aldean and Chris Stapleton. Perhaps less competitive is the Vocal Group of the Year race, a category Little Big Town have dominated since 2012. The group could also pick up trophies for Music Video of the Year (for "Girl Crush") and Musical Event of the Year (for "Smokin' and Drinkin,'" their duet with Miranda Lambert).
Rolling Stone Country spoke with Little Big Town about this year's crop of CMA nominees just before a Los Angeles show on the group's current Pain Killer Tour.
You've had a little time for the CMA nominations to sink in. What are you most excited about?
Fairchild: I'm excited for Chris Stapleton [who's up for three awards]. We're so close to he and his wife, Morgane. And I'm excited for Eric Church with all these nominations. I could go on and on. I think Kacey Musgraves' album is brilliant, Pageant Material. The main thing I think we want to see happen would be to watch the three women who wrote "Girl Crush" [Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey] get their due, their award. We've got friends in that category, but just really want them to win. They're beautiful people, and it'd be lovely to see them — I'll be a mess if they get up there.
Schlapman: They're just brilliant songwriters who so deserve to carry that home.
Fairchild: And it's three women. I just love seeing three women up there. It's not like there's a ton of women in the business being showcased or highlighted right now, and so we want to be part of that change. And they do, too. That's the reason we have Ashley Monroe out here with us in L.A. It's like we want to share with people that there are a lot of amazing women who are about to bust the door down, and we need to help them and be a platform.
Sweet: We share the stage with two amazing women right here!
Some artists are reluctant to share their opinions, but you seem to take hot-button topics in stride. Does that ever come back to bite you?
Westbrook: It probably does. I think, for us, we talk about things we believe in, and it just comes from there. It’s not about any kind of agendas, or anything political. We're just human beings who talk about the things and the people that we love. I think that's an honest thing. We obviously don't want to offend anybody with anything that we might say. Just being honest, you know.
We're seeing some young women like Maddie & Tae and Kelsea Ballerini getting some traction. Perhaps the pendulum is starting to swing back?
Schlapman: I think people didn't realize how excluded women were until that conversation began, and then people started going, "Hmm, you're right! There are hardly any women on the radio." So hopefully that started the change. If the fans demand to hear women, and they demand it loud enough, then radio stations will have to play it. And a lot of radio stations are rallying around women.
Fairchild: You know, they cite statistics. You can't really get a stat off something that you don't play. I think that's kind of interesting. I also think it's interesting that there are two records in the Album of the Year category that have not really been on the radio. And maybe this will change that. I mean, clearly people respect it, want to hear it, so I’m hoping that we’ll hear more Kacey and more Chris on the radio.
Westbrook: Radio will be reflective of that desire that's obviously there.
In terms of the male-female debate, you guys have it covered from both ends of the spectrum.
Sweet: We like the diversity, and within our own band, too. And I think this format could be the most diverse, and that's why we enjoy being a part of it.
More than a few people have likened Little Big Town to Fleetwood Mac. Do you think that's accurate?
Fairchild: [Laughs] The hillbilly Fleetwood Mac!