Reliability – that’s been the defining trait of Little Big Town over the course of their nearly 20-year career.
The gifted country quartet – with its signature, exquisite four-part harmony vocals – has worked its way through six solid, intermittently spectacular, kissed-by-classic-rock country albums and one quirky detour into funkier sounds with Pharrell Williams.
They’ve enlivened awards shows: with their own material, with game pop crossovers with folks like Ariana Grande, and are the go-to group for tributes (most recently at a salute to the Bee Gees for an upcoming CBS special). They scored a slew of hits, from 2005’s swampy “Boondocks” to the watershed of the sultry Grammy-winning “Girl Crush.” The group has been generally well-liked, critically-acclaimed and showered with accolades. But each stage of Little Big Town’s growth felt incremental.
But with new album The Breaker and their just-launched residency at Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium, things have exploded exponentially, propelling members Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman and wife and husband Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook onto another plane.
And it’s clear that the band knows it.
Throughout their promotional tour for The Breaker and during the first two Ryman shows on February 24th and 25th, the veteran group seemed to be seeing itself through new eyes, with each performance sparkling with an electric sense of rebirth.
That palpable excitement is both rare and heartening to witness in artists – of any genre – this deep into their catalog. Onstage at the Ryman on the second night of the residency, it radiated from the stage, with Little Big Town playing The Breaker in its entirety. While normally a risky move, especially for an album so new and unfamiliar to the crowd, it was the perfect showcase for LBT’s renewed vibrancy and the thematic cohesion of the album, produced once again by Jay Joyce (Pain Killer).
Opening with the buoyant “Happy People” – the ideal snapshot of The Breaker, all vibey rhythm and acoustic warmth – the band was off like a shot.
Whether floating through the Laurel Canyon cool of the gauzy “Lost in California,” bringing complex harmonies to the windows-down, radio-blasting anthem “Drivin’ Around” – enlivened this night by feisty songwriter Audra Mae – or lamenting a lover who took a good thing for granted on the winsome Taylor Swift-penned Number One ballad “Better Man,” the singers used their voices to showcase the songs instead of using the songs to showcase their voices. It’s a subtle, but crucial distinction, with the emphasis tilted toward musicianship as opposed to showy self-glorification.
Aided by the intimacy of the venue, the emphasis on new songs also brought into focus the lyrical gems from The Breaker, which is littered with crushing couplets of heartbreak. Among its most poignant is the image of sleeping in the curve of the mattress left by a former lover and ultimately giving up for the couch on the wrenching waltz “When Someone Stops Loving You,” led by Westbrook. Sweet took the lead on the mournful title track (co-written by TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne), an elegant expression of remorse for not being able to love someone the way they deserved.
While Fairchild may get the lion’s share of lead vocals, both the album and show were a good reminder of how gifted her compatriots are. It also illuminated the members’ sense of humility, seamlessly ceding the spotlight to one another, receding into the background to support their special guests (Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt made cameos on Night One) and frequently voicing their gratitude to the songwriters whose songs they cut.
Following The Breaker, the group romped through a short greatest-hits set that included the whimsical “Pontoon,” the country-noir rattler “Tornado” and the night’s biggest singalong, that gorgeously messy mix of emotions – longing, jealousy, hurt – “Girl Crush.”
In addition to Audra Mae, soul-pop singer Andra Day joined the group for two songs on Night Two – a stirring rendition of her anthem “Rise Up” and a jubilant run through Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Opener Ashley Monroe appeared for the hymn “He Walks With Me (In the Garden)” and a closing, hushed, microphone-free cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Both were moments not of pandering piety but genuine reverence, and a fitting coda to their first weekend of the residency at the “Mother Church of Country Music.”
The focus, though, was firmly and rightfully on The Breaker, an album that embraces maturity and the passing of time, rather than struggling in vain to turn back the clock. Onstage at the Ryman, Little Big Town proved they are evolving into one of country’s most innovative artists – and just maybe future Hall of Famers too.