How Little Big Town Became Country Music’s Most Unconventional Band
Karen Fairchild’s son has a question for his mom: “Is soundcheck finished?”
“Not yet babe, I wish,” says Fairchild, standing onstage at Carnegie Hall, where her band Little Big Town have been running through vocal arrangements and stage directions for a performance that evening. “It’s almost done,” she reassures her child, who’s been patiently waiting in the otherwise eerily empty esteemed theater. The quartet has been soundchecking for over an hour.
The reason for the longer-than-usual rehearsal: Nightfall, Little Big Town’s new album, their ninth in 18 years, which the group will be debuting in its entirety for the first time a few hours from now.
Nightfall is a summation of the type of anomalously adult-oriented, ever-so-slightly left-of-center mainstream country the foursome has been making for the better part of the last decade. While stars like Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton have become arena headliners in recent years by establishing themselves as bold country outsiders, Little Big Town — Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook, Phillip Sweet, and Kimberly Schlapman — have taken the harder-to-navigate, and arguably more impactful, route: gently poking at and tinkering with the system from within.
With songs like 2013’s darkly poignant “Your Side of the Bed,” 2014’s blockbuster ballad “Girl Crush,” the Taylor Swift-written “Better Man” in 2016, and last year’s Christian-feminist plea “The Daughters,” Little Big Town have become country’s music’s most thoughtful incrementalists, a group that somehow scored their biggest hits on country radio after all four members were well into their forties, with music (Seventies soft rock imbued with country-gospel harmony) that often feels determinedly out of step with the band’s contemporaries.
Little Big Town refuses to grandstand about any such self-importance. In conversation, when a band member makes a solemn point — about the blurry lines between the personal and the political, for example — they’ll tend to follow it by emphasizing that they don’t take themselves “that seriously.”
But within the razor-thin confines of commercial country music, where a tiny group of (overwhelmingly young and male) stars occupies the vast majority of terrestrial airwaves, the fact that a Fleetwood Mac-worshipping mixed-gender vocal harmony group who have been around long enough to have their own Angelfire fan page are having hits with subtle, often darkly complex narratives remains almost radical.
Like any artist seeking a massive platform, Little Big Town have negotiated their tight-rope walk, in no small part, by regularly dishing out a string of dependable party tunes. See 2005’s breakthrough “Boondocks,” 2013’s “Pontoon,” 2014’s “Day Drinking,” and the new down-the-center sing-along “Over Drinking.”
“You’re trying to walk that line of commerciality and satisfying your creative spirit, and those don’t always, rarely, maybe sometimes, coincide. I don’t know if I should say that out loud,” Westbrook says. “We’ve always kind of struggled with that.”
Nightfall, the band’s latest, falls solidly into the “creative spirit” camp, and is more quietly daring than the group’s last outright curveball, the promptly forgotten 2016 funk-pop album Wanderlust with Pharrell Williams.
The band self-produced their latest LP (a first) after working with Nashville A-lister Jay Joyce on three of their last four albums. Nightfall is an “unapologetically adult” record, as Sweet puts it, full of moments of uncommon interiority (“Questions,” “Next to You”) alongside gently nabbing sociopolitical musings (“Sugar Coat,” “The Daughters”).
“We’re not 16 years old,” Sweet says. “For this record, we had life experience; we had things we had to talk about.”
Later on in the evening, Little Big Town’s Nightfall live premiere is flawless. The band plays through the record in order, complete with a surprise Mariachi horn section for “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” before ending the evening with a mini greatest-hits set. In playing Carnegie Hall, the band joined luminaries like Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire, becoming one of just a few commercial country artists to headline the venue in the past 35 years. They also surely became the first act to utter the word “motorboating” on the venue’s stage.
If any contemporary country artist is prepared to present their music in nontraditional country spaces, it’s Little Big Town. “They elevate country music,” says Jason Owen, the band’s manager who also works with pop-crossover acts Kacey Musgraves and Dan + Shay. “You will never find one artist, not one, that does not love this band, both musically and for what they stand for, and how they present themselves within our industry, and I can’t say that about anyone else. They’re beloved in a way that allows them to take risks that people wouldn’t normally take in our format.”
Among those admirers: Miranda Lambert, who has toured and recorded with the group. “Singing with the four of them makes you feel like you can fly,” Lambert writes in an email. “I love this band, not only for their music but also for who they are.”
At the moment, Little Big Town isn’t thinking about any of that. Instead, the quartet has been spending the past hour of soundcheck making sure their signature four-part harmonies are note perfect. They just spent the better part of 10 minutes working through the background “whoa-oh” vocals on the new song “Questions.” At one point, Fairchild huddles the group together at the lip of the stage, playing quarterback as they decide which songs to run through next.
One of the band’s points of pride is the lack of a lead singer. “That was the plan, from the get-go,” Schlapman says, recalling tense label discussions early in the career. “Our label was like, you have to pick a lead singer, and we were pretty strong about, ‘No, we don’t. That’s not what we’re going to do.’”
Nevertheless, in recent years Fairchild has emerged as the band’s de-facto front-person, with nearly all of Little Big Town’s well-known material featuring her on lead. Never is this more apparent than on Nightfall, on which she sings lead on 10 of the album’s 13 songs. Fairchild’s voice, with its rich pop textures and deep mid-range, has, over the past half-decade, become almost as much of the band’s identifying sonic trait as those four-part harmonies.
Although the band is quick to give Fairchild credit for bearing the brunt of the band’s back-end business matters, no one in the group sees her as the clear musical spotlight, least of all Fairchild herself. Asked if the idea of making a solo album has ever, even once, crossed her mind, Fairchild answers immediately.
“No, it hasn’t,” she says. “If somebody in the group ever wanted to, we’d all be supportive of it, but no, I just haven’t. What we have together, it feels very special. I have a lot of songs on the new album, and that’s just because I wrote a bunch of them, so I had sung the demos. Because my bandmates are amazing people, they were like, ‘We’re not taking your voice off of it, that would be weird.’ That’s the good thing about the unit, we’re not like, ‘Everyone has to have 3.3 songs on the record.’ It’s a great thing that we get to share the talents of the band, and the idea is to exploit those.”
“I’ve really never seen any four people work as well together as they do,” says singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, a longtime collaborator. “I’ve also never seen four people write songs to the harmonies. When I watch them write a lyric around a note that they all can sing, it’s mind-blowing. It’s almost like a kind of sign language; they use their hands, point to one another. I don’t know if they know all the names of what they’re doing [when they work together]. But together, when they sing, they flow like water, like liquid.”
Little Big Town’s foundation of harmony is no mere talking point. When Fairchild and Schlapman, who met on a bus to choir camp in college, first began mapping out their ideas for a country music group when they reconvened in Nashville years later, their idea was harmonic. “We decided, ‘Let’s just try to find some guys to sing with,’ because that would fill out a whole harmony line, top to bottom,” Schlapman says. When Westbrook joined Schlapman and Fairchild in 1998 and they decided they needed a fourth singer, that, too, was a harmonic decision. “To have a fourth member, it would just free up the ability to have a single voice and then a complete triad going along with that,” says Westbrook, who married Fairchild in 2006.
After releasing their debut in 2002, Little Big Town struggled to find an identity over the next decade, getting dropped by their first label and struggling to settle on defining sound. That changed when Jay Joyce came on board for 2012’s Tornado, which yielded the band’s first Number One, “Pontoon.”
“Before that,” Sweet says, “we were like, ‘Gosh, what are we going to do?’”
Tornado’s multi-platinum success gave the group increased leeway. The sparse retro soul ballad “Girl Crush” took country by surprise in 2015, the year Sam Hunt’s pop-friendly, Drake-influenced approach to country dominated the airwaves. By virtue of its title alone, the haunting depiction of jealousy stirred a faux-controversy in country radio over what could (falsely) be perceived as a queer premise.
“I remember sitting in a dressing room and somebody walking in, saying, ‘You’re getting some major pushback from radio,” recalls Schlapman. “Karen and I even got on the phone and started talking to some of the radio stations: ‘Please, just listen [to this song].”
The song would go on to become the second biggest country hit of 2015, crossing over to Top 40 radio and receiving tribute versions by artists like Harry Styles and Alicia Keys. “Maybe the real controversy,” Fairchild joked that year, “is that a 6/8 ballad is on country radio.”
The latest Little Big Town song to garner some level of unwarranted scrutiny is “The Daughters,” a prayerful plea for gender equality. “I’ve heard of God the Son and God the Father/I’m still looking for a God for the daughters,” goes the chorus, which misunderstood by some, forced Fairchild to repeatedly clarify the song’s intention.
“It wasn’t a ‘I disbelieve’ moment, not at all,” she said recently.
The band never bothered to release “The Daughters” as a radio single — it just wasn’t worth the hassle. “We know that some people were going to hear it the wrong way,” Schlapman says.
That “The Daughters” would be subject to accusations of faithlessness amuses and baffles the band, particularly Schlapman and Fairchild, who grew up in religious households. Fairchild even began her career with stints in a series of Christian vocal groups, Truth and KarenLeigh.
Little Big Town’s Christian roots are actually a helpful framework for understanding the type of humanist searching in songs like “Sugar Coat” (co-written by McKenna) and “Questions,” the latter of which had been an early working title for Nightfall.
“Things that you never say out loud, but you’re constantly struggling with in your head,” is how Fairchild describes such songs. “That theme runs through the record pretty strongly. There are a lot of social questions.”
Where does any of this leave Little Big Town, the longest running band in country music with a mainstream platform, in 2020? Nightfall debuted as the highest-charting country album on the Rolling Stone album chart the week of its release. Meanwhile, “Over Drinking,” Nightfall’s most obvious single, has been slowly climbing the charts, but is yet to come anywhere close to being a hit.
The commercial success of the album could help determine the plans for the band’s next record, which, from what the members say, sounds all but done. Little Big Town cut 32 songs throughout the course of recording Nightfall, including a series of nostalgic, Seventies yacht-rock-leaning tracks that, according to Sweet, have a “summery vibe.” “Those are for something later down the road,” he says.
When Jimi Westbrook said the band felt like it was constantly negotiating a balance between “commerciality” and “satisfying your creative spirit,” it raised an interesting question: Did there exist a type of album, either in Little Big Town’s vault, or simply in their own imagination, that would represent a full, unadulterated embrace of the band’s own creative impulse? An album that had absolutely nothing to do with sales charts or country radio airplay.
At first, Westbrook answered diplomatically. “I think that Pharrell record definitely touched on that type of thing,” he said. “But maybe it’s this record? I feel like we definitely hit a lot of notes on [Nightfall]. It’s a pretty wide swath of things that we love to do.”
Westbrook ruminated on the question some more. “I don’t know, that’s an interesting question that I’ll be thinking about later. It’s fun to follow the muse of creative energy, and it does always seem to take on a different phase, at different times,” he says. “I’ll have to think about that.”