It has taken Little Big Town seven years and three separate record deals to achieve its first Top 20 single and album. But the four members of the vocal group continue to soldier on with the energy and eagerness of newcomers. Now with the release of their second album -- The Road to Here on Equity Records -- they finally achieved the sound they've aspired to all along.
Kimberly Roads, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook got together in 1998 to form the group. The band's name was taken from a Nashville music publishing company that had just been sold. Initially, the band landed a development deal with Mercury Records, but that soon fell through. Then the four moved on to Monument Records, a Sony Music label.
In 2002, LBT released a self-titled album and charted two singles: "Don't Waste My Time" (which went to No. 33) and "Everything Changes" (which peaked at No. 42). The band also made an impressive appearance at Sony's 2002 Fan Fair show. Then the label shifted executives, a tremor that led to the act being dropped.
As it turns out, LBT found disappointment with its Monument output, even though the band co-produced the album and wrote six of the songs on it. Here's what their official bio says about that project: "Their sound was polished to a pop sheen. Their once-soulful vocals were reduced to vanilla pudding. Their visual image was so stylized that they looked like cast members from The Young and the Restless. The 2002 Little Big Town CD was greeted by savage reviews. When the label downsized, the group was dropped."
Well, savage reviews or not, the band is back on radio. The album's lead single, "Boondocks," has been on the charts for more than 20 weeks and recently chugged into Top 20 territory.
A day after LBT sang the national anthem at a Green Bay Packers game in Wisconsin, Fairchild (she's the dark-haired one) calls CMT.com to talk about the group's career and new music. She and the other members have spent the morning doing radio interviews -- 30, she estimates -- and her voice is slightly hoarse from the ordeal.
Fairchild's remarks about the Monument interlude are a bit more tempered than the ones printed in the press kit bio. "It wasn't a horrible experience by any means," she insists. "Some of those friendships and relationships have lasted through the years. It was more of a situation where, as a new artist, you're afraid to voice your opinions maybe as much as you should. Things get compromised and watered down slightly so they don't come out as pure as the way you intended them in the beginning. That happens for a bunch of reasons, and it's no one's fault. It just happens."
Fairchild says the business model Equity has set up -- which involves artists contributing up front to album costs and sharing earlier in album profits -- gives the group far more say about its music. "We don't have to sit with a huge committee for approval as we're making decisions," she explains. "We really have creative control over what we're doing. ... We're proud [of that first album], but it didn't fully capture who we are. There's more energy in our live show than what was captured on that record."
However, Fairchild continues, the band is completely satisfied with The Road to Here, which debuts this week at No. 17 on Billboard's country albums chart. "This sound defines us and where we've always wanted the music to go. ... We've been living with this [music] a long time. 'Boondocks' was written almost two years ago -- if not longer."
LBT's co-producer, Wayne Kirkpatrick, fronted the money to record the new album. He and the band also co-wrote eight of the 13 songs, and he played on the recording sessions.
Unlike most bands, there is no single lead vocalist in LBT. Everyone takes his or her turn at the post. Similarly, they all share emcee duties on their live shows. "We just kind of sit around and figure out whose voice is right," Fairchild says. "We use the voices like instruments. In the storytelling and the lyric writing, we figure out who wants to deliver that story. There's no real rhyme or reason, other than coming up with harmonies and saying, 'Gosh, this is something that Kimberly should say. Her voice sounds great on this.' ... There's no set rule that he or she should have 3.3 songs on the record."
In March and April, the band took to the road to become reacquainted with radio programmers. More recently, the band members held a series of album release parties. "People come in and buy a CD for $10," Fairchild explains, "and that's their ticket to the show, as well." They've also done a string of TV performances and radio interviews to promote the album. "Anything we can do to get the word out," Fairchild says.
One of the band's biggest assets, Fairchild acknowledges, has been its longtime affiliation with Creative Artists Agency, the major-league booking organization that also handles show dates for Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, Martina McBride and other country music heavyweights.
The CAA connection dates back to the band's brief stay at Mercury. "They got excited about the harmonies and the potential of the band really early," Fairchild recalls. "So they jumped on and said, 'Let us help you get a [record] deal.'"
After LBT left Monument, Fairchild says, "We went to CAA and said, 'We'll do anything to stay in front of people. If we can pay for the fuel and the van and our drive through Wendy's, we'll go sing. So just throw us in front of people.' And they really did that. It was last summer, I guess, that we drove all over the country. I think we drove to Boston one time to open up for Phil Vassar, basically [covering] our expenses. It was just because we believed in the music we were making. We knew we had a connection with people when we sang live and that that would keep this whole thing going."
Little Big Town will begin touring with Keith Urban on Nov. 3.
Listen to Little Big Town's The Road to Here.