They've been together for more than a decade, yet Little Big Town still feel flirtatious on their new album, The Reason Why, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's country chart.
In the first line of the lead title track, Karen Fairchild sings, "I could love you/If you want me to." In the next verse, she's answered by Jimi Westbrook, who sings, "You're in my head like a song I can't forget/Wanna hear it over again and again." In time, the couple (who secretly married in 2006) harmonize over a quiet undercurrent that pulsates like a quick-skipping heartbeat, and before it's all over, all four LBT members are belting it out and begging for more.
"It starts off so small, and when the chorus kicks in with the vocals, it's like this big wall of sound that comes in," Westbrook says. "We just thought that would be a cool way to start this new record. Hopefully, it grabs people's attention and they'll say, 'Oh, wow. We haven't heard anything like that from this band.'"
"Lyrically, it's indicative of where the band is," Fairchild adds. "We're very happy in our personal lives and professionally. It's a really pretty love song with a cool groove. That's the way I look at it."
Although that sensual song suggests a satisfied, mature perspective, the album concludes on a serious note with a determined ballad called "Lean Into It." The idea came from their producer, Wayne Kirkpatrick, who was inspired by the band's back story. Since the inception, the ensemble has endured divorces and unexpected family deaths, as well as failed albums and label closures. On the flip side, they've established themselves at country radio with hits like "Boondocks," "Bring It on Home," "Fine Line," "Good as Gone" and their current single, "Little White Church." Plus, they exude a fun dynamic, with a significant portion of the interview spent laughing about the ladies' first impressions of the guys -- and vice versa.
"We've been together a long time and we've had some off-the-charts, amazing moments, but we've had some pretty down moments, too, professionally, and a lot of obstacles," Fairchild says. "I think [Kirkpatrick] was just thinking about our perseverance and how you have to lean into those moments when it's really difficult. When he brought the idea to us, we were talking about the very difficult times in this country right now, economy-wise. People are making tough choices for their families. For us, writing those verses, it took on other people's stories, not just their own."
"I think those things we went through over the years have given us reference points to at least be able to talk about those emotions and write about them," says Phillip Sweet. "Even though they may not be all of our personal experiences, or some might have been, at least I feel like we were able to go to those different extremes of emotions, from happiness and love, to sadness and pain."
Yet, for country fans that have never seen Little Big Town perform, Kimberly Schlapman offers a simple description. "Our show is just fun. There's a lot of energy. We live for that hour, hour and a-half or two hours onstage every night and hopefully that shows."
"We spend a lot of time and energy perfecting," Sweet says. "We're perfectionists, so we want to make it sound the best we possibly can. I want people to hear us and be blown away. We want it to be as good as, if not better than, the record."
Over the years, the members of Little Big Town have endured countless comparisons to ABBA, Fleetwood Mac and the Mamas and the Papas, partially because of the male-female lineup, but also because of the group's layered harmonies. However, a country influence is more obvious in LBT's sound, while their internal drama appears pretty much nonexistent. (All four members are married with toddlers.) Without a lead singer, there's no real spokesperson, either. In group interviews, each person politely answers questions and rarely steps over another's sentences.
For aspiring artists who are struggling to break through without compromising their vision, Fairchild offers this advice: "Stick to it, but know who you are. Because if you don't, someone will definitely think they know who you are ... and they'll turn you into that. Then you'll be singing some lame song that you don't believe in and that you wouldn't want to listen to -- and you'll be singing it a thousand times. So you better try to hone in and get it right, then work harder than anyone else."
Westbrook adds, "When you're younger and doing things for the first time, sometimes maybe you don't think you have an opinion, when you do. To me, it's more getting in tune with that inside feeling. People will convince you that you don't really feel a certain way, but it's just honing in and listening to what your gut's really telling you. You have to work on that, I think, especially when you get so many opinions."
So, how important is instinct?
"It's everything," all four members immediately reply, nearly in four-part harmony.
"When you get a record deal, it's hard to have that voice," Fairchild says. "That perspective when you can convince people around you, 'This is who I need to be,' especially when you're new. It takes a long time to hear that gut instinct and to communicate it well. It's the most challenging thing in the business, by far."
But the payoff is when fans can hear their own lives in the songs, according to the band.
"That's the power of music and one of the reasons we love what we do so much," Westbrook says. "Hopefully, through your career, somewhere, your music will mean something to somebody on a deeper level. Music speaks to people like nothing else."