One of country music’s most successful groups is about to return to the UK to perform a run of dates including British Summer Time in Hyde Park, alongside The Eagles, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Little Big Town live a few times now, their exquisite harmonies unfaltering during their energetic performances. This year will be a big year for the three time GRAMMY award winning group as they head back out on the Bandwagon tour with Miranda Lambert and gear up to release a new album. The first single off that record, ‘Hell Yeah’ is creeping up the charts at the moment. But, for the four members who are currently sitting on top of the world, success didn’t come easy, but their strong bond has helped them to navigate through the highs and lows of the music industry and life itself, all whilst providing a pretty good soundtrack for the rest of us to get through those times.
Little Big Town first formed back in 1998 but Kimberly Schlapman remembers it clearly, “It was probably 23 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday,” she smiles. Kimberly went to college with Karen Fairchild and the pair sung together frequently. They decided to go in search for a couple more members to join their group. “We had this grand idea of putting a band together. Karen said, ‘I know this great singer named Jimi Westbrook, we should see what he’s doing.’ He was actually just about to move to Nashville, from Alabama. So we got together with him and it was like he and I were first cousins. Immediately we hit it off. We had the same kind of background, we were both raised very southern.”
It took the group months to find the fourth member, Phillip Sweet, but the two girls were not convinced by him upon their first meeting. “Finally, when we found Phillip, Karen and I met with him at a coffee shop in Franklin. We just sat down and had coffee with him and chatted for a minute and when we got in the car, we looked at each other and we said he is so cute, there’s no way he can sing. So we put his CD in immediately and we were like, oh, he can sing! So that made up the four of us.”
Once the band was assembled, it was time to listen to how they sounded together. “The first time we got together to sing was at my house in my living room,” Kimberly remembers fondly. “We sat around together and worked up a song by our friend Wayne Kirkpatrick.” Kirkpatrick went on to be a big part of the band’s career, producing three of the group’s records and frequently co-writing with them. “When we sang together, we didn’t even really talk about what each other was going to sing. We just literally came together, immediately found our home in the chord and started singing it. It was so special. We looked at each other like… wow. That sound, it sounded like family harmony.”
From there, the band went full steam ahead trying to persuade the rest of the world that they had something special. “It’s funny how our career started – like a bang. We already had a manager involved who took us to an agency and they got on board. We sang for six record labels and we got six offers. We chose to go to Mercury Records, we were only there a few months but the first day we signed at Mercury, we played for the first time on the Grand Ole Opry stage, that night because someone had cancelled and they needed someone to step in. So we signed a record deal on the Friday and then we went straight to the Opry. Then the agency also got us at the Oscar De La Hoya fight in Las Vegas – we sang the anthem the very next day there. So we thought, Oh, my word this is it. We have made it.”
However, their whirlwind beginnings were short lived as without releasing a single or album, the band parted ways with Mercury and signed instead with Sony. “Little did we know that, that really quickly came to a screeching halt a few months later. We spent a long time at Sony and made our first real record, which was a huge flop. It made the Nashville news when we got dropped from Sony after making that record – not how we wanted to make the news!” Kimberly laughs as she thinks back to that rocky patch. But even in those early days, they had formed a strong family bond that would keep them together, working hard towards their goal. The quartet saw it as a learning curve as well.
“We compromised a lot and because of that compromise, that record just turned out kind of vanilla. I mean it sounded good and the parts were there but it just didn’t have spark. When that record flopped, of course, it was a heartbreak, but not much of a surprise, because it just was not us. But it hurt, it hurt really bad, because we had started off so fast. We were so oblivious to what it was going to take to really become who we are today.” At their lowest point since they formed, the quartet rallied round each other and turned once again to their good friend and collaborator, Wayne Kirkpatrick. “I think about if we had been a solo artist, how much harder that would have been – we held each other up. That’s when we got with Wayne Kirkpatrick again and we started writing songs and we made a record with him. He paid for the whole thing because we had no money!”
Their friend believed wholeheartedly in the group’s sublime harmonies and the natural chemistry between them and helped to nurture the group back to their best and his, and the band’s instincts were right. “Wayne knew that we had something special, so he just put poured so much time and energy and money into us. We made a record and then we had our first big ol hit, ‘Boondocks’, because of that record!” ‘Boondocks’ is one of the band’s signature tunes, a real highlight within their live shows as their fans belt out the southern anthem slightly less harmoniously than the quartet. It was their first top ten on the Hot Country Songs chart in 2005 and would go on to be certified double platinum.
“I think we’re scrappers because it hasn’t come easy, since that first great weekend. We just work hard, I think we learned making that record with Wayne, to believe in ourselves, to not give up and just persevere. ‘Boondocks’ came of it, and it changed our lives.”
Their second and third albums, released independently were a big success with songs such as ‘I’m With The Band’ drawing in more fans. Labels once again began to notice the group and together with Kirkpatrick they produced their fourth album, ‘The Reason Why’ for Capitol. The quartet wrote the majority of the record with familiar names such as Chris Stapleton and Hillary Lindsey receiving writing credits. The 2010 record produced another top ten hit, this time ‘Little White Church’ reached number six. Kimberly remembers the day they wrote the track vividly. “We wrote at my house that day, and I live kind of far out so we don’t really write at my house very often,” she recounts. “The day before, Karen started noticing little white churches, because they’re all over the south, in the country. So she just started thinking about that. What if we wrote a song about a little white church? And so we were writing with Wayne Kirkpatrick that day, Wayne is a phenomenal guitar player, so he started playing on his guitar and, that song fell out in a matter of two or three hours. Then we went and ate barbecue because there’s a famous barbecue joint near my house. We remember that so vividly that we went straight to Martin’s barbecue right after we wrote that song.” Kimberly looks up from the computer and across the room, smiling fondly, “I have a beautiful picture of a little white church hanging huge in my living room, just because I’ll never forget that moment.”
From that moment on, things really began to look up for the quartet. Their next album, the Platinum certified ‘Tornado’ topped the country albums chart and produced the band’s first number one hit, ‘Pontoon’. The track, which the group won their first GRAMMY award for, was penned by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and Barry Dean – some of Nashville’s finest songwriters. “Over the years, we have gained the respect of the Nashville songwriting community. These days, we get just incredible songs pitched to us,” Kimberly gushes. “Sometimes they’ll come to our record label. Sometimes they’ll come to our management company. We are friends now with this Nashville writing community, and because they trust us, a lot of times the songs just come directly to us like the song ‘Better Man’, Taylor Swift sent an email to Phillip and said, I wrote this song, and I think you guys would be awesome on it. So that’s how we got that one.”
Arguably, it was their next album, ‘Painkiller’ that produced the group’s biggest hit of their career though. ‘Girl Crush’ won the CMA Award for Single of the Year and earned two GRAMMY awards. Kimberly, still with that fond, reflective smile on her face picks up the story of how that song came to fruition. “Karen and I were writing with the love junkies one day, (Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey). Karen said, what have you been writing this week? And one of them said, Well, we wrote something yesterday that we love, but you’ll never sing it. So we were like, well, we want to hear that. So they played ‘Girl Crush’ and when it was over, we were like, don’t play that for anybody else. Don’t play it for Carrie Underwood, don’t play it for Miranda, don’t play it for anybody else, we want it.” Despite all of it’s success, it caused a stir in the southern States, it’s witty chorus lyrics were too clever for some. “That song got off to a rocky start. Before people understood what we were saying, there was a little bit of controversy with it.”
The group’s natural chemistry with each other has helped them sustain their long and successful career as the quartet’s voices blend as if they were made to fit together. Kimberly’s voice sits in the top of the chord, Phillip’s in the bottom whilst Karen and Jimi’s range overlap, taking a natural lead in the middle. However, sometimes a song is just made for one of the group to take the narrative. “There was a song called ‘Beat Up Bible’ that we did on a record a few years ago and everyone knew that we have a beat up Bible in my family from the 1800s. So I had to sing that song because it was just my heart and soul. Sometimes there are songs like that, where you’re like, that is her song, or that is his song, he has to deliver that.”
For their upcoming record the quartet have all been actively involved in the writing process and there are songs that speak to each member of the group differently. “On this brand new record, I’m just so proud of the songs and the messages, but it is full of all kinds of different configurations as far as songwriting goes. The four of us, the four of us with someone else, Jimi and Phillip with somebody else, Karen and I with the love junkies – we love to write with them. So all kinds of different configurations.” Kimberly says it’s her favourite record of theirs to date!
Their first single, ‘Hell Yeah’ is currently climbing it’s way up the charts and it’s a song that Kimberly has been excited about for a long time now. “Jimi and Philip wrote that a few years ago with Tyler Hubbard and Cory Crowder. Cory, I think is the one who came in with the idea. It’s so hooky. I remember the next day, we were on the road, I don’t remember where we were, but they had it on their phone, and they played it for me. I was like, holy cow, that is a huge big ol hit song, because it was just so infectious. Fingers crossed, it’s gonna keep going up the hill,” she laughs.
The pandemic, though it parted them for a while, allowed them to gain some perspective on the world and how special their little community is. “I think quarantine gave us a new perspective on things and you can hear that in these songs,” she divulges. “There’s one song that Jimi wrote called ‘Rich Man’, he wrote it all by himself. It’s about being rich in love and family, not in money. That song fills up my heart. It is so special, I can’t wait till you hear it. It’s about what really matters in life. There are several of those songs, deep songs that come from a place of, I think revelation and appreciation. There’s also a bunch of fun songs too. I’m really proud of this record.”
Now, as the group prepare for that UK tour which sees them playing at British Summer Time Festival, which will welcome close to 65,000 people, Kimberly reflects upon her previous trips to the UK. “My favorite thing about the UK is the fans. Your fans are so appreciative, they’re so involved, they participate. It blows us away every time. You know the words to every song. Over here fans know the words to the songs on the radio but they don’t know all those deep cuts like you all do. It’s so exciting. It’s just the most fun we ever have, we love the UK fans. Some of our greatest memories are playing for y’all just because you are right there in the middle of it with us.”
After 23 years together, their career shows no sign of slowing down as they have seen off the tough times both in their careers and in life. “We’re a family. We’ve been through so much over the years, so many highs, so many of the lowest lows that we became a family. Watching each other raise kids and being on the bus raising kids together, then watching our kids grow up all except for my little Dolly, all the kids are growing up and it’s just crazy. It’s like during the pandemic, we missed those two years watching the kids grow up and now all of a sudden they’re all teenagers,” Kimberly laughs. It would take more than a global pandemic to weaken or break those 23 year bonds as they reunite stronger than ever. “Nobody but the four of us really understands and knows what it’s like to be a part of our little institution. We share that bond that no one will ever take away from us because we’ve been with each other during these life changing moments. We’ve been blessed with the fact that we really love each other.”
As we part, Kimberly concludes, “We’re just a group of people who came together to try to make music together and now we’ve grown up together, we’re growing older together, and nobody could ever take that away and I’m grateful.”
Little Big Town will take to the stage at Hyde Park on June 26th, make sure to get your tickets now.