It was late December, and Little Big Town‘s Kimberly Schlapman was traveling home from a busy weekend at Dolly Parton‘s Dollywood. With daughters Dolly, 3, and Daisy, 12, in the back seat and husband Stephen beside her, Schlapman was looking forward to spending a quiet New Year’s Eve at home, counting her blessings.
“Personally, I feel so…I mean this word is thrown around all the time, but I feel so incredibly blessed,” a relaxed-sounding Schlapman told PEOPLE. “I’m happy and I’m content and I feel completely fulfilled. Granted, God has given me both sides of that story.”
She took a moment, then continued. “Heck, as a band, we have been on both sides of that story.”
And while she refrained from expounding on the remark further, it’s safe to say that she was referring to the rough years, the tumultuous years filled with tragedy and broken promises. The times in which the foursome — Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, 50, Philip Sweet, 45, and Jimi Westbrook, 48 — doubted if they would ever find a permanent pocket within country music.
But those years are far behind them, and with the Friday release of their ninth studio album, Nightfall, Little Big Town is now one of the most influential groups in the genre.
“This record is a grownup record,” said Schlapman, who turned 50 last October. “We are mature and we are raising families and these songs tell the stories that we want to share with the world. We still are all in for a good time! But we’ve never been more comfortable in our own skin.”
And while Nightfall has them feeling at home, Schlapman admitted that they were looking to stir things up a tad for their followup to 2017’s The Breaker.
“We did things differently this time,” she explained. “We self-produced this album and we have never done that before. It was so hard. So many challenges come up that we didn’t even think about — things like schedules and responsibilities. But as a band, we pulled it off.”
They collectively made the decision to be more open than ever before to different sounds, writers, and ways of saying what the group felt the world still needs to hear.
“It’s different, but recognizable,” Schlapman said. “We cut 34 songs, and from the beginning, we didn’t put any boundaries on ourselves in terms of the songs. We ended up with 13 songs and that was excruciating to get down. We love all kinds of harmony, from bluegrass to gospel to ’70s stuff. We were very open-minded through the whole process.”
And then they faced the challenge head-on.
“We felt the pressure,” Schlapman said. “I have to be honest. The pressure was on us to figure out what kind of record we wanted to do. The pressure just made us work even harder to make something we knew we would love and our fans would love.”
Shortly after work began on Nightfall, the group could clearly see what trajectory the album would ultimately take thanks to one single, somewhat sultry song.
“When we heard ‘Next to You,’ it just became the catalyst for the entire record,” she said. “We just knew it when we heard it. We were like, ‘That’s it.’ We heard its potential. The movie in our head started rolling.”
Soon, songs such as the addictive “Over Drinking,” the Grammy-nominated “The Daughters” and the thought-provoking “Problem Child” came to be.
And then came “Sugar Coat.”
“I think everyone can identify with the lyrics of the song,” Schlapman said of the tune co-written by Lori McKenna, Josh Kerr and Jordyn Shellart. “The whole thing about a women having to look perfect and the secrets she keeps to herself while doing that and wondering what’s going on with her husband. It was another one of those songs that got a movie running in our heads.”
And this time, that movie turned into a music video starring actress Kate Bosworth.
“We filmed all day, but when we saw what she did, we were like, ‘We don’t even need to be in this video!’” Schlapman recalled. “She was perfection, oh my goodness. So many women put on a show. I think this song is going to make women feel like they are not alone.”
Granted, Westbrook and Sweet can feel that just as much as Schlapman and Fairchild.
“They are always supportive,” she said. “Philip has a daughter himself. They have always been about empowering women. They have sisters and they have mothers and they have great love and respect for women. They have never had any hesitancy to grab onto the opportunity to put out a song such as “The Daughters” or “Sugar Coat.” They believe in the message. I mean, it goes all the way back to “Girl Crush.” They have always been all in.”
Next up, the band will embark on a groundbreaking new tour, which was partly inspired by their 2017 residency at the Ryman Auditorium.
“Well, we play Carnegie Hall…I mean, c’mon,” Schlapman said with a laugh. “I feel like, for the first time, we are being very particular as to what we want to give our fans during our live show. We have really planned out what we want to put out there. From the time we had the opening slot with Keith Urban, we have wanted to give fans a true experience via our live show. This go around, it’s truly a visual journey. There are all kinds of emotions throughout the show. Visually, it’s going to be incredible.”
Schlapman also took a moment to pay some major props to her longtime friend and bandmate.
“I have to say, Karen has truly been our quarterback with all of this,” she said. “On this record and with this tour, Karen has come up with some incredible ideas, so I have to give her so much praise. She deserves it. We have been on a journey and I hope fans can live that journey now right along with us.”