If Little Big Town is holding their collective breath waiting for the release of their fifth studio album, expect the country quartet to let loose a huge sigh of relief when Tornado spins into play September 11.
They're already benefiting from the momentum gain provided by their simmering summertime hit "Pontoon," Little Big Town's first No. 1 single on the country radio charts. This aims-to-please-with-ease tease serves as a gentle prelude signaling the winds of change for a band that is destined to have its best year ever.
"Pontoon" was released on iTunes just before Memorial Day and went platinum just before Labor Day. Heading into fall, perfect bookends were built for a veteran group known for blended four-part harmonies as much as their symmetrical two women/two men configuration.
"To me, (Tornado is) a fun, feel-good record," said Kimberly Schlapman, the bubbly, bright-eyed blond and co-founder the group in 1998 with Karen Fairchild, the more pragmatic, businesslike of the two musical partners who last month celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first time they met. "And we will take you down to those low moments, of course. There's a couple of those on the record that will pull you down. That's real life."
Yet, during a phone interview that lasted nearly an hour, Schlapman, taking after her perky musical role model Dolly Parton, was a radiant ray of sunshine, despite the fact their tour bus broke down at midnight, four hours outside Nashville. It took another four hours to get back on the road to Wisconsin, and by midday she seemed unruffled by the hassle, saying, "As much as we tour, it's gonna happen sometime here and there."
Little Big Town has reason to beam these days. While they have had their share of mainstream success with numerous on-the-verge moments and occasional Top 20 singles, this breath of fresh air takes them to heights that require an oxygen tank.
During a summer tour of outdoor venues with longtime friends from Rascal Flatts, along with Eli Young Band and Edens Edge, Little Big Town changed their minds about waiting until after the record release to try out the new tracks. "We literally play six new songs off the record every night in our show," Schlapman said. "It's all about the music. So we blew that plan out of the water."
They are amazed by the reaction to other material besides the sure-thing "Pontoon," which immediately grabs the crowd with what Schlapman described as "tweaked-out" mandolin licks.
"We didn't dream this up," Schlapman said of the heat wave created by "Pontoon," written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and Barry Dean. "We didn't dream it being as big a hit as it's been this summer."
The popularity of the first song recorded for Tornado (Capitol Records Nashville) has led to a number of national television appearances for the group, which also includes Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook, Fairchild's husband.
Little Big Town, from left: Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman,
Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook. (Photo by Williams + Hirakawa.)
A long list of other names went into making what could be one of country's best albums of 2012, but much of the credit deservedly will go to their new producer, Jay Joyce.
After years of working with "close confidant and friend" Wayne Kirkpatrick, the group hired Joyce (Eric Church, Cage The Elephant, Emmylou Harris) essentially to take them off the tried-and-true path.
"We just wanted to do something different," Schlapman offered. "Not for any other reason. It was just time. ... We try to go with our gut because usually, when we all feel strongly about something, it's usually right for us. ... We all four had a great feeling about it."
Joyce, who played electric guitar on LBT's "Runaway Train" from 2010's The Reason Why, is "an amazing guitar player" who likes to think outside the box, Schlapman said.
"Several times in the studio, when the four of us would huddle up to try to figure out what we were going to do, he would just call us out and say, 'Stop thinking and start singing,' " she recalled. "That was fun; it was nice to have our feathers kind of ruffled and do things differently and think differently and not think as much maybe."
The result was a more spontaneous record that was made basically in three weeks, a "fast and furious" method, "which is crazy for us," Schlapman said.
"It takes us a long time to do a record. That was one of the reasons we decided to name the record Tornado. Because it happened so fast."
It also was the first time the four, who usually employ some of Nashville's best session players, recorded with their own touring band that includes Johnny Duke (guitars and other string instruments), John Thomasson (bass, Moog bass pedals) and Seth Rausch (drums).
All seven of them recorded every song in the same room during a four-day rehearsal period (another first), then added three more days of tracking the album together.
"To me, it just sets the record apart as far as the sound and the energy level," said Schlapman, who shared writing credits with her three bandmates on four of the album's 11 songs. "Everyone was a little bit nervous because we didn't know the songs well enough to be comfortable with them, but we knew them well enough to perform them. ... Nobody wanted to be the one to mess up while we were recording. So everybody was at the top of their game."
Fast-paced rockers such as the opening "Pavement Ends," "Front Porch Thing," "On Fire Tonight" and "Self Made" all feature churning guitars and a rowdy roadhouse feel that's both cozy and intoxicating. Then there are the sweet Fleetwood Mac-like harmonies of "Leavin' In Your Eyes," the group's first co-writing experience with Joyce that came together in the basement studio of his home.
Those are offset by a few emotive ballads, including "Your Side Of The Bed" and "Sober," both of which have the writing touch of talented Massachusetts-based folk singer Lori McKenna, who has provided material for Faith Hill and Keith Urban among many others.
"I tell you what. If you're gonna write a sad song, you need to get Lori McKenna in the room," Schlapman said. 'Cause she is the best at it. ... She's a precious, precious lady. And happy. Even though she doesn't write happy songs, she's a happy girl."
The title might imply that "Sober" is a theme song for Alcoholics Anonymous, but the lyrics are much more romantic than that, including the singalong chorus:
Cause I love being in love
It's the best kinda drug
Drunk on the high leanin' on your shoulder
Sweeter like wine as it gets older
When I die, I don't wanna go sober
Oh when I die, I don't wanna go sober
Schlapman not only brings lead vocals to "Sober," which McKenna co-wrote with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose, but also connects personally to the song's meaningful sentiment. Her first husband, Steven Roads, died after suffering a heart attack in 2005.
"Thank God I've been able to love again," said Schlapman, who married Stephen Schlapman in 2006 and gave birth to daughter Daisy Pearl in July, 2007. "I have a man in my life who fixed me when I was just in shreds. He put me back together. And this song, he is my life now. And this great love that I found, I don't ever want to be without. And I know what it is to be without."
Another song about loss that grabbed Schlapman is "Can't Go Back," written by Hemby, Rosi Golan and Kate York. Living without regret and "telling the people in your life that you love them when you have the opportunity and being kind to people and just speaking words that encourage people instead of breaking them down" are important ideals that Schlapman tries to follow.
She certainly values the divine sisterhood she shares with Fairchild, saying, "She and I have been through almost everything in life together. ... I think that when I look back on my life, especially these past 13 years that we've been a band (since Sweet joined in 1999), all the ups and downs and ins and outs we've been through, I can't really imagine another friend walking through that with me. ...
"We can read each other's minds and don't even have to speak a word. I trust her and she trusts me and we give each other advice and are open to each other's feelings even though we might not agree about everything. ... She and I don't fight. We've never had a fight. I don't think we ever will. Just because we know how to talk to each other." (Schlapman, left, with Fairchild.)
While the hellish ride to Wisconsin had finally ended, Schlapman still was missing her little girl, now 5, who was at home after just starting kindergarten. "She's doing great, but Mama's having a pretty hard time," Schlapman said of her "little social butterfly" who would fly to Indianapolis with her dad two days later to be with her mom again.
Asked if Daisy took after her outgoing mother, Schlapman revealed that while growing up as a shy child in the north Georgia town of Cornelia, she became a kindergarten dropout.
"I got scared of the fire drill and I couldn't get over it," said Schlapman, whose family, including a brother and sister, still live there. "My daddy had to come pick me up and I never went back. ... Then (came) first grade and, of course, I had to go then, but my mother was a second grade teacher, so she was next door. But I still cried every day."
Much has changed since those days and Schlapman, who looks like she wouldn't harm a fly, has turned into a "protective Mama Bear" and will defend a friend or family member when they are being wronged. One such instance happened on a cross-country flight with the band when Daisy, about a year old, was misbehaving on board.
When a male passenger overreacted, Schlapman called him a jerk.
"I was just taking up for my little girl who was just having a real hard time. Yeah, I kinda ... I snapped," she said, able to laugh about it now. "Which my husband had never seen. He may have seen it once or twice since, but even he was shocked. So was the whole band. I mean, I didn't cause a scene or anything. But for me, that was pretty big."
Any parent can identify with Schlapman's outburst, and whether dealing with human or mother nature, it's not always calm before the perfect storm.
Now that an actual Tornado is coming, though, be prepared for Little Big Town to blow you away.