Little Big Town's New Album Exudes Love and, Of Course, Harmony: 'We've Never Been a Mail-It-In Band'

·9 min read
Little Big Town
Little Big Town

Blair Getz Mezibov Little Big Town

Little Big Town just achieved a remarkable feat — releasing their 10th album — so let's put them on the spot. Can the award-winning quartet name them all in order?

Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook instantly warm to the challenge, with Westbrook, 50, taking the lead.

"Little Big Town," he begins. (That's a gimme. Their debut album, in 2002, was self-titled.)

Fairchild 52, and Schlapman, 52, join Westbrook for album No. 2, all three simultaneously volunteering: "Road to Here."

Westbrook continues solo: "Place to Land … The Reason Why."

"Good job, Jimi!" Schlapman affirms.

"Then Painkiller …" Westbrook hesitates. "No …."

"Tornado!" Schlapman and Fairchild jump in to correct Westbrook just as he, too, comes up with the right answer.

In unison, all four bandmates declare album No. 6: "Painkiller."

"Then Wanderlust," says Fairchild.

"The Breaker," Fairchild and Schlapman say together, and Schlapman concludes solo: "Nightfall and Mr. Sun!"

"We did it!" Westbrook exults.

Just a frivolous pop quiz? Not so much. Behold, in microcosmic form, all the traits that have given the band so much staying power: the way they share the load, how they encourage and shore each other up, how they sense when (and when not to) join voices.

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This is a band that knows how to do things harmoniously — in every sense of the word — whether they're recalling album titles or actually making albums. And their new one, Mr. Sun, is just the latest exquisite chapter in their 24-year story of togetherness.

The album arrives with all the attributes that are long-established LBT trademarks: the sublime vocal blends, the sumptuous production, the subtle influences of other legendary harmonizers like the Eagles and the Bee Gees. Add to that the evocative songwriting (at least one member of the quartet contributed to 13 of the 16 tracks) and a full spectrum of musical moods (from the sunny delight of "All Summer" to the unfettered passion of "Last Day on Earth" to the sweet melancholy of "Three Whiskeys and the Truth").

Also at the forefront is music that speaks to what matters most to the quartet — love, family and friendship.

Westbrook takes solo writing credit on "Rich Man," a labor of love that expresses his feelings for his large extended family: "Yeah, I'm a rich man / Without a lick of money / A better-than-blessed man / Had all I ever wanted / I got everything I need / Got love and a family."

"It is my heart for my family in a song," Westbrook says. "We are incredibly close, and that song is born out of that, and what they meant to me growing up."

Writing it, he explains, required a journey that spanned several years. "The first part of the song came to me really quickly," he says. "I didn't feel the pressure of trying to finish it. It would always come back around to me. A year would pass by and I would just start playing it again."

Schlapman recalls the first time Westbrook played a version for his bandmates: "We were like, oooh, Jimi, that is amazing!" But Westbrook was still unconvinced it was destined for public consumption.

Then, just before the group was putting the new album to bed, he played "Rich Man" in a social setting for a few friends who requested any song of his that they hadn't heard before.

"Their reaction was so visceral," Westbrook recalls. "They were like, 'You gotta put that out! Why are you not putting that on the record?'"

"That was a Friday night," Fairchild says. "We booked the studio on Sunday."

The song's message, she notes, "brings you back to the things that we can all agree on, which is the important things in life."

It's no coincidence that its addition to the album occurred against the backdrop of the pandemic and its accompanying isolation. "I think everybody came to a focus in the pandemic where all the peripheral things just fell away," Westbrook says, "and it came back down to what matters most."

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Another cut, "Friends of Mine," is also an emotional standout with a pandemic connection. Sung with gospel fervor, it's a tribute to surviving tough times together: "Everyone knows that in life sometimes / The wind blows the rain in your eyes / I see your cup filled with kindness / Raise you a glass full of wine / Take courage, friends of mine.'

Sweet, 48, calls it the band's new "mantra."

"It is our story," says Schlapman. "Plus, it's our message to our fans."

Since they were making an album "on the backside of the pandemic," says Fairchild, the band wanted to convey "the sunnier side of the street" with the song, which features all four on writing credits (as well as songwriter Vance Foy).

Westbrook declares one more song on the album, "God-Fearing Gypsies," as "the heart of the band, too." The soulful ballad offers a tender reflection on the subject of aging: "If you're taking the long way / Enjoy the ride and make it sweet / If you're learning the hard way / It'll be alright, you can take it from me."

The older-and-wiser lyrics, co-written by Fairchild, also seem to echo LBT's own evolution after almost a quarter-century together — and, all four agree, they are still intent on evolving. They cite the hard work they've poured into Mr. Sun as ample evidence of that.

"I guess there are artists that maybe don't put that kind of care in it," Fairchild says, "but you know … "

"… we wouldn't be satisfied if we didn't put that much care into it," Sweet says, completing Fairchild's thought. "We've never been a mail-it-in band, and we'll never be one."

"Or just show up and sing your parts," Westbrook adds, "and let somebody else …"

"… pick the songs or the musicians or whatever," Fairchild says, completing her husband's thought. We just don't function like that."

(There's a lot of sentence-finishing in a Little Big Town interview, so much so that you wonder if you're talking to four people or a single organism.)

Even those seemingly effortless harmonies, all four bandmates assure, require just as much work now as they did in the beginning.

"It takes a lot of effort and energy to really dial it in," says Sweet.

"It's got to weave together," adds Schlapman. "We all have a home, and we all know where our home is. I'm on top. Phillip's on the bottom. Jimi and Karen are in the middle, almost always. But then in the studio we just work really hard at what we can do that we've never done. Or how can we make this different and better?"

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Little Big Town Mr. Sun
Little Big Town Mr. Sun

Blair Getz Mezibov Little Big Town's Mr. Sun

Fairchild also allows that Little Big Town does have its harmonic limits. "We suck at 'Happy Birthday,'" she reveals.

"We sing it real ugly and loud," Schlapman confirms.

Westbrook points out that they're still high achievers, just in the worst way: "We try to make it as awful as possible."

LBT's work ethic may not have changed over the years, but their goals have. Though they're perennial nominees for ACM and CMA group of the year — their brand-new CMA nomination is their 17th, and they've won six — they say those shiny trophies are no longer big motivators.

"Not at all," says Sweet.

"We used to because …" Schlapman begins.

"… when you get your first one," Sweet finishes, "you're like, oh my God, we worked so hard for that."

Though current single "Hell Yeah" has cracked the country chart, the foursome say they also aren't single-mindedly striving to add to their enviable collection of No. 1 and top 10 hits.

"Like the song 'Girl Crush,'" Schlapman says, bringing up perhaps their most famous signature song. "I think we know there will never be another song like that. That was just an anomaly. So we don't go in and say, 'Let's make ..."

"… a better 'Girl Crush,'" says Fairchild.

"… Or another 'Girl Crush,'" says Schlapman, "because we don't want to mess with that."

Instead, they say what drives them is opportunity, such as the experiences they've recently enjoyed with some of their idols: their just-completed European stadium tour with the Eagles, their performance of "Dreams" in front of Fleetwood Mac at a 2018 tribute concert, their 2021 collaboration with Bee Gee Barry Gibb on his Greenfields album.

"Across the studio and in the room with Barry Gibb — holy cow!" Schlapman exclaims.

Fairchild says she dreams of the band one day writing movie theme songs, performing on the Oscars or appearing on Broadway. "What could we do that we haven't done yet?" she wonders.

These days their biggest challenge, they say, is the down-to-earth demands of juggling career and family life. Fairchild and Westbrook share a 12-year-old son, Elijah; Sweet and his wife, Rebecca, share a 14-year-old daughter, Penelopi; and Schlapman and her husband, Stephen, have two daughters, Daisy, 15, and Dolly, 5.

"The kids are getting older," Westbrook notes. "They've got a lot more that they're involved with at home. And I think those are the things that are probably the most pressing."

"We can't stop running," says Sweet. "Instead of slowing down, we keep running, and it's wonderful, but like Jimi said, it's the balance."

Yes, the band confirms, of course there is a Mr. Sun tour in their future, and one more time, they'll be chasing after what they say drives them the most.

"We want fans at every show to walk away and years later go, 'Oh, that Little Big Town show ... ," Schlapman says.

" … And for them to say, 'That was magic,'" says Fairchild.