“Man, I think we need a cigarette after that one,” Philip Sweet joked Tuesday night, following a particularly intimate version of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” at a venue in North Nashville. Sweet and his three bandmates briefly interrupted their country-wide Pain Killer Tour to return home, round up four of their favorite co-writers and film an episode of Front and Center, a Public Television concert series that kicked off its fourth season earlier this fall.
Unlike most Little Big Town concerts, the Front and Center performance focused not only on the chart-topping band, but also the songwriters who’ve helped stockpile the group with tunes like “Pontoon,” “Sober” and “Tumble and Fall.” Since inviting all of their co-writers onstage would’ve required a bigger venue, Little Big Town focused on four of their heaviest hitters: Natalie Hemby (who co-wrote “Pontoon” and “Tornado”) and the so-called Love Junkies, a Nashville-based writing trio featuring Liz Rose (Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning collaborator), Hillary Lindsey (the composer of six Number One hits for Carrie Underwood) and Lori McKenna (a solo artist who’s penned hits for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Hunter Hayes). At least one of those songwriters shared the stage with Little Big Town during all but two of the 16 tunes performed last night.
It was a night of storytelling, motorboating jokes and super-sized harmonies. When Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild asked the Love Junkies if they’d been drinking when they wrote “Sober,” McKenna replied, “No, it was, like, 11 in the morning. We don’t start drinking until 1:30.” Later, while McKenna kicked off “Your Side of the Bed” by singing the first verse herself, the rest of the Love Junkies walked offstage and watched the song from the floor, where they nursed a pair of well-deserved beers and hooted some encouragement for their writing partner.
The night’s biggest revelation? Those songwriting ladies can sing. Natalie Hemby brought sass and swagger to “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” which was apparently inspired by a lover’s quarrel that her co-writer, Shane McAnally, overheard in a Nashville movie theater, and Hillary Lindsey ripped into the second verse of “Girl Crush” with bluesy, ballsy power, adding some changes to the song’s retro phrasing before handing the reins back to Fairchild. Sometimes, it takes a village to write a country hit. . .and these villagers clearly know their stuff.
Along with recently taped performances by Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Hunter Hayes and Bob DiPiero, the Little Big Town concert helps extend Public Television’s recent partnership with the long-running CMA Songwriters Series, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The new episodes of Front and Center will hit the airwaves next spring. In the meantime, previously broadcasted performance by Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum are available on the program’s YouTube page.