Little Big Town
Four Distinct Voices in Perfect Harmony
By Mark Mussari
As a vocal group Little Big Town exists on a rarified plane. The country-rock quartet – whose album The Road to Here has already sold over 500,000 copies and spawned a mega-hit in the stomping Southern anthem “Boondocks” – consists of two women and two men. That would be singular enough in the country field, but all four members of this powerhouse group, who also write much of their own music, sing lead.
And I mean sing: Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet blend their four distinctive styles into an intricate tapestry of sound that seems to defy categorization. Fairchild’s edgy alto grabs you by the collar; Roads’ emotional soprano features a genuine mountain twang; Westbrook’s Southern tenor is aggressive and expressive; and Sweet’s husky baritone reveals r & b tinges.
Westbrook points out that the group’s male-female combination offers more variety and emotional depth. “Other groups don’t have that dynamic,” he explains, “so it’s something that sets us apart.” In the case of the intricate and imagery-laden “Mean Streak,” Fairchild describes the writing process that led to a female lead: “When we started writing that one, we didn’t know who – or what gender – would be delivering the lyric. Yet, it takes on its own life when you hear a woman sing it. It’s one of those moments that show the depth of emotion in a female voice.” On that number the lead fell to her cohort, Kimberly Roads.
The four singers seamlessly trade leads, often within a number, and then shift into some of the tightest harmony in any genre of music. “A lot of it is in the harmony structure,” Westbrook adds. “It’s a natural thing involving where our voices land – we’re always looking for that buzz.” Their immediately identifiable sound also stems from their dark tone, as in the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-inspired “Bones.” “It happens naturally with the configuration of our voices,” comments Fairchild.
Threads of influences weave in and out of Little Big Town’s music: a lick from the Allman Brothers here, a riff from Pure Prairie League there. The darkness of their sound echoes early Eagles or Fleetwood Mac in its heyday. Fairchild observes: “When you look at the bands of the seventies who have influenced us, they had immediately identifiable harmonies. If Glenn Frey or Don Henley was singing lead in the Eagles, it didn’t matter. When it got to the chorus you knew it was the Eagles. That’s what we’re setting out to do”
As lyricists, the band discloses a pictorial nature with plenty of images and provocative similes. Fairchild’s rich alto is featured on the album’s third single, the haunting and driving “Good as Gone.” “It’s such a visual song,” she says. “When you listen to that one, you envision the moment.” Westbrook adds that all four band members “have that love of the lyric – we try to paint a picture.” He sees the songs on The Road to Here as a “movie” appearing in the listener’s mind.
In reality almost nothing has been easy on the road to here for the multi-talented quartet. Their inception seemed auspicious enough: they debuted on the stage of the legendary Grand Ole Opry in 1999. Yet, despite two minor hits (“Don’t Waste My Time” and “Everything Changes”), their first self-titled CD, released in 2002, fizzled quickly, resulting in the group being dropped by its first label.
Still, the four singers would not give up: taking odd jobs to support themselves, they continued to tour – often losing money in the process. Westbrook recalls: “The four of us would climb into a van and drive all over the country, just for gas money. It all came down to one thing: Just let us get in front of people and do what we do. Just let us take our music to them. That was the ultimate goal.”
Personal tragedies then imposed themselves on the group, including two divorces and, in 2005, the untimely death of Roads’ 41-year old husband to a heart attack. They remained undeterred. The band found a mentor in songwriter-producer Wayne Kirkpatrick, who had co-written a rousing number, “Pontiac,” with the group on their first CD.
Believing in the quartet’s undeniable talent, Kirkpatrick – who also co-wrote many of the songs on The Road to Here – paid for new sessions until the band could find a record deal. He also convinced some of the most revered musicians in country to contribute to The Road to Here, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Gordon Kennedy on guitar. The band then signed with the independent label Equity and, in 2005, re-burst onto the music scene with the rollicking “Boondocks” (written by the band and Kirkpatrick).
A down-home thumper that features a riveting opening vocal by Westbrook and some infectious dobro work by Douglas, “Boondocks” became a top-ten country hit and achieved an RIAA Gold Certification for digital sales in excess of 100,000. The video for “Boondocks” soon hit #1 on CMT’s Top 20 Countdown – as did the CD’s second release, “Bring It on Home,” a pensive ballad that features Sweet’s soulful baritone on lead. The rest of The Road to Here runs the gamut from the insistent “Looking for a Reason” to the bluegrassy “Wounded” to the wistful closer, the layered lament “Stay.”
In the spring of 2006, the band toured with both country superstar Keith Urban and rock legend John Mellencamp. Every night in his show, Mellencamp called the band out to sing “Pink Houses” with him. “It’s one of those moments you want to check off on a list of dreams,” says Westbrook. “Standing on stage in the middle of that, we would just look at each other, shake our heads and wonder: How did we get here?”
Hearing Little Big Town sing, it’s really no wonder at all.
|#1 © 2005 Courtesy of Equity Music Group. All rights reserved.|
|#2 © 2005 Courtesy of Equity Music Group. All rights reserved.|
|#3 © 2005 Courtesy of Equity Music Group. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 20, 2006.