While Little Big Town play what Karen Fairchild calls "a pissed-off bridal party" in their hit video for "Little White Church," it doesn't really represent the present mood of one of today's best country quartets.
The shoot for the first single off 2010's "The Reason Why" was "a lot of fun and a great way to launch that record," says Fairchild, one of Little Big Town's founding members.
Yet, she says, there are feel-good moments throughout the album, released in August 2010 on Capitol Nashville, that are "really reflective of where the band is in our private lives. And we couldn't always say that in past records. But this one, everybody's just in such a good place. And we have a lot of blessings and joy."
That might be as rare as any two-man/two-woman country group that has stayed together for 12 years. In fact, on this same day in mid-July, when Fairchild and Little Big Town returned to Nashville for a brief break before heading back on tour, news later spread that Cheyenne Kimball had bolted Gloriana. A far younger -- and less experienced -- male/female foursome was disrupted by the departure.
During a career of highs and lows, Little Big Town have never faced such a dramatic personnel change. While breakups, divorces and deaths in the families have provided a lot of personal pain, the group, which includes co-founder Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook (Fairchild's husband since 2006) and Phillip Sweet, has remained intact.
"I don't really know what we would do without each other," Fairchild says, laughing. "Kimberly and I have been friends for 22 years [since they were students at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.], so it's more like being sisters, almost, than friends. And then the four of us have been through so much. The business highs and lows (including three record label changes) are one thing. But the personal highs and lows of a death of a father for Jimi [in 2002], the death of a husband for Kimberly [Steven Roads died after a heart attack in 2005], and then the greatest joys of having children and watching those dreams come true when some of us weren't sure that would ever happen for us, that's a lot of living in 12 years. So, yeah, I think we'll just always make music together."
The fact that they all have had children recently (Schlapman remarried in 2006 and has a 4-year-old daughter; Sweet's daughter was born in December 2007) has turned their tour bus into a joyful playhouse.
Back home in Nashville before working on some Christmas music, including "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Santa Will Find You," co-written by Mindy Smith and Chely Wright, Fairchild does a phone interview just after unloading her bags. At the same time, she enjoys watching her 17-month-old son, Elijah Dylan, "run around the house like a crazy man."
And while admitting that raising a toddler on the road has its challenges, Fairchild says, "I love having him on the road. I like crawling in my bunk at night, and usually he ends up crawling in there with me at some point during the night. That's my favorite time.
"It is difficult to balance everything, I will say that, with the schedule that we keep on the road [which includes 5:30 wake-up calls]. I wouldn't have it any other way. It's no different than just being a mom at home with a full-time job and balancing all those same responsibilities."
From left, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Wesbrook, Karen Fairchild
and Phillip Sweet (photo by James Minchin).
While their female-male textures make for beautiful harmonies on records and tours, Little Big Town aren't always so in-sync when it comes to making decisions within the band. But Fairchild believes it all works out in the end, because they are an equal partnership.
"Yes, absolutely. In everything," she says. "We kind of have a band rule about not moving forward with something unless the four of us agree on it. You don't want to talk somebody into something and then they're singing some song they don't want to sing for the next five years because we talked them into singing it. So we try not to do that to each other. It's like, if one person doesn't like a song, we don't cut it. ... We gotta all four be feeling it together. And most of the time we do."
While they continue to succeed through teamwork -- and all four share writing credits on seven of the 12 tracks from "The Reason Why" with co-producer Wayne Kirkpatrick -- they welcome the challenge of spreading their wings and trying different projects.
"We each know musically what we want to do and where we want to go," Fairchild says. "And most days we're all on the same page with that. But you can't help but sometimes want to venture out or if you have an idea, follow it through to the end. And we have to stay pretty democratic inside the band. ... So I would say at this point it's a good problem."
Westbrook, who turned the girl duo into a mixed trio when he arrived in 1998 after singing in a gospel group, gets sole credit for one track on the latest album, the rousing "Runaway Train," and has been writing other songs by himself. Sweet, the blue-eyed soul man who was the final piece of the band puzzle in 1998, has written with folks outside the band.
It allows them to "express ourselves individually" and "inspire each other in a new way," Fairchild insists, as they work with a group of diverse artists including John Mellencamp, Lionel Richie and Martina McBride. Yet she believes that there's nothing like the magical experience of Little Big Town's creative force.
"The last couple of songs we wrote together in the last few weeks, we just love. ... And maybe it's just an intangible thing, that everybody being so emotionally invested into a lyric, maybe that's the difference. We love writing together. It's just we all feel like we should branch out and see what else might happen."
So while they continue to write their own material, Little Big Town also enjoy covering a wide range of artists with their tongue-in-cheek online video series, called "Scattered, Smothered and Covered."
Usually taped backstage before a concert, the fearless foursome present versions of songs that are "a little bit country, a little bit Little Big Town," including Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," Madonna's "Like a Prayer," Bruno Mars' "Grenade" and Jessie J's "Price Tag." The latter by Britain's latest pop tart, is a catchy number that the group did last month in Madison, Neb. that featured upright bass, mandolin, Fairchild's powerful vocals and -- believe it or not -- Sweet's debut as a rapper. (See LBT's version at the end of this article.)
The daughter of Brenda and Butch Fairchild, who now live in Georgia, Karen originally grew up in Indiana listening to country and gospel. But as soon as her older sister Kelley began driving and they could change the stations in the car radio, her musical tastes expanded to pop and rock. "That just wasn't necessarily my mom and dad's bag," she said.
Yet, her pop sensibilities remain. "We've been doing the Lady Gaga thing, 'Born This Way,' in concert because there have been so many requests for it. That one kinda really took off," says the dark-haired, husky-voiced Fairchild, who started brainstorming with Schlapman, the blonde with the curly locks, in 1987 about forming a guy/girl country group.
"We've been doing a lot of current, relevant music right now. But we're big fans of classic music, so we might go back and tap into something older and refined," she added, casting a wide net that covers Dylan, the Beatles, Jackson Browne and Michael Jackson. "It's hard to cover things that you love and respect so much because you sure don't want to mess them up. ... Who knows what's next?"
One of her favorite covers to perform in concert was Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." It grew out of their 2006 collaboration with Lindsey Buckingham on CMT"s "Crossroads," and Little Big Town have been linked with Fleetwood Mac ever since.
"We did 'The Chain' for a couple of years, I think, just almost reliving that moment over and over again that we got to share with him onstage," Fairchild says of Buckingham. (From left, from CMT's "Crossroads" in 2006: Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman, Lindsey Buckingham, Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook. Photo by Matt Huesmann.)
Of course, there's nowhere near the friction in Little Big Town that existed with Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John and Christine McVie and Mick Fleetwood, but favorable comparisons between the two bands and their dynamic voices have been made.
"I take that as a huge compliment," Fairchild says. "Are we influenced by them? Of course. We love harmony bands. ... It can't help but seep in your bones when you love something. Do we want to be them or think that we're like them? No. Plus, we're a country band. We might be like the hillbilly version. ... It's the combination of voices that maybe makes people think of them. "
They have made four albums, including "The Road to Here," which went platinum in 2006, and the chart-topping "The Reason Why," with its third video -- "Shut Up Train" -- just completed and soon to be released.
They have a couple of gold records and nominations for Grammy, Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards that certainly signify success. But what will it take to make this a career year?
After a totally unexpected entry for the Teen Choice Awards that air Aug. 7 on FOX, Fairchild and Little Big Town find themselves in competition for best country group with Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry, Rascal Flatts and Steel Magnolia. Selections are made by 13- to 19-year-olds.
"I know the way our younger fans have been into this ("Scattered, Smothered and Covered") series," Fairchild says. "So, yeah, it's us doing those kinds of [cover] songs that's introducing our music to a broader audience. That's what we want" -- along with the Teen Choice surfboard that goes to the winner, Fairchild adds with a laugh, preferring to remain young at heart rather than just another bridesmaid.
See Little Big Town's video of Jessie J's "Price Tag" from their "Scattered, Smothered and Covered" online series: