Little Big Town

by Shawna Ortega

They didn't invent harmonizing, but Little Big Town certainly wins the 2000's round for it. Like their iconic predecessors were in their heyday (CSN&Y, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), these guys are at the top of their game, seamlessly toggling lead vocals with songs of unquestionable quality, unique catchiness and monolithic talent.

Knitted more tightly than a lot of families, the two women and two men of LBT - who formed this band all by themselves, thank you - have stumbled, fallen, and sometimes been pushed, but always together. Which is a big part of their musical authenticity; if they're singing about it, they're feeling it.

Their first record deal, with Mercury Records, fell apart. Shortly afterwards, so did a second deal. Their third label was the mighty Sony, who got them heard, but in a back-handed manner: they were packaged as a pretty pop-country crossover act, and it came off as artificial as it was. The Allmusic review of their 2002 self-titled Sony release sniped, "Little Big Town does not have great songs, their image is diffuse, and they seem ready to cross over to pop at any minute."

After the beat-down LBT has taken - both as a unit and on a personal level - many lesser bands would hurl themselves overboard. Not this foursome. They chose the high road, left the haters in the mud, and are making a lot of beautiful things in the process.
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): "Little White Church" will probably be played at wedding receptions for years to come. Love the attitude there. Tell me how that all came together.

Phillip Sweet: Well, we had been writing for the record (The Reason Why) and were feeling like we were coming up with some cool ideas but not quite landing on something that would start the avalanche of creativity to get this whole record feeling in the right direction. But the day we started writing "Little White Church" together, it felt that way.

And it came together pretty fast. Karen (Fairchild) had the idea written in her book, "little white church," because you drive around Tennessee in Franklin, you see all these beautiful, quaint, picturesque, little white churches all over the place. And she had the idea for a call and answer type thing. I think her and Kimberly (Schlapman) had been listening a lot to Patty Loveless' Mountain Soul record. And there's all that cool bluegrass call and answer stuff. And so she had the thought of, "take me down, take me down," that call and answer.

And she had that melody idea in the shower one morning. She literally called Jimi (Westbrook), who she's married to, and she was like, "Jimi, get my phone!" So Jimi held the phone up in the bathroom next to her in the shower while she sang the idea of the call and answer back into the phone. Then when we got together, I think it was either that day or the next day, she played us that idea. And we took off and it was fun; I think by lunch time we had a large majority of it solidified, and we were like "Let's go eat bar-b-que!" It was one of those days, it felt good, and it kicked off the energy of the creative process.

And so when we got to recording for these songs and started tracking that one, it just came to life. It had that raw energy we were looking for. We tried to even track it smaller with 3 to 4 players just so it would have that space and that raw kind of rocking edge. I just love that. Every time that track kicks on, it just jumps out at you. And that's what we wanted. It sounds and feels like we had fun, because we did.

Songfacts: Can you tell me where that little white church in the video was?

Phillip: That little white church was actually in Tennessee, and it wasn't too far from Nashville. I want to say maybe 30-45 minutes outside. There's a lot of those little pretty farms, like Watertown and some of those areas. I think that was in Lebanon, maybe. And I'm trying to remember exactly, I don't want to misquote it, but it was hundreds of acres of land and an old iron bridge. After we shot the video, we had to go to the Kentucky Derby and play, and it rained like crazy that weekend. That's when we had all the floods. I think that old bridge that we walked across, the little bridge that we're standing there waiting on Karen in the video, I think that bridge is gone. That creekway flooded it and may have washed that whole bridge out. But it was some beautiful stretch of untainted land. It was pretty cool.

Songfacts: I have noticed in several of your videos, you guys have used that real beautiful landscape out there and it always looks like your Sunday family barbeque kind of thing, like you were just saying. And I wonder, are these people that you know, like family members or friends?

Phillip: Well, there was a few of them that we knew, like Wayne's (Kirkpatrick, co-writer & co-producer) daughter in the "Boondocks" video. But a lot of those people were local kids. They directed it like a little bit of a casting call in the local town and people showed up and we picked 'em out and found some cool ones. Now, they did do that kind of stuff; they came out of the woods and got together and had cookouts and field parties and that kind of stuff. That's what we wanted, that authenticity, so you believe that they actually did that stuff. It was cool. I like that element of real and gritty.

Songfacts: And since you mention "Boondocks," is that song truly autobiographical? I mean, that's where you guys are from and describe-your-town sort of song?

Phillip: Yeah, me and Jimi and Kimberly (Schlapman) grew up in really small towns, population below 2,000. But Karen, she had Southern parents but grew up in Atlanta. But it's not like she was that far removed from our whole thing. She grew up in the South, too, and she just happened to grow up in a little bit bigger metropolitan area as a kid. So we tease her about being a city girl, but she wasn't a city girl. She was born in Griffith, Indiana. She's like, "That's the armpit of America." (laughing)

Songfacts: Tell me about how "Boondocks" came to life.

Phillip: We were towards the end of getting dropped from Sony at that time. And we started making this music in that void. And there was a song that Wayne had, this little rolling, picking thing. It was like "Bones." The song "Bones" and "Boondocks" lived in the same world there for a minute. "Boondocks," the original title for that was "Waiting For the Sun to Go Down." But that line was actually used in "Bones." And you get that rolling/picking thing.

So you had that little piece that eventually became a line in "Bones." But "Boondocks," that melody, we weren't really jiving on "waiting for the sun to go down" - that just wasn't strong enough for the end of that melody that "Boondocks" was. So we lived with it for a little bit, we all tried to work on the lyric. But then one day Wayne came in and he said, "What if it was: 'I feel no shame, I'm proud of where I came from, I was born and raised in the boondocks.'" And we were like "Yeah." It was just instant. And that song took off and it became what it was.

And when we started working on "Bones," just (singing) "what goes around comes around, feel it breathing down heavy on you." All that stuff, real moody, it just seemed to fit that lyric, that context seemed to fit better into that kind of music. So it worked its way into "Bones," which turned out to be another thing.

But really "Boondocks" was inspired by us just wanting to speak about who we are and what we're about. Because there seemed to be a little bit of confusion there at Sony when we were signed there that we were a put-together band, or we weren't country, we're too slick. And nowadays you wouldn't even get those kind of questions, but at that time it just seemed really strange. And I don't think radio really understood who we were yet. So we just wanted to write this, and it was therapy for us and it was a chance for us to really make a statement about our roots. And that's really what it was.

And then "Bones," too, there was a little bit of attitude from us to the label. But it wasn't like there was one particular person. It was more of like the big, bad label that won't let you be yourself, you know what I mean? (laughing) We were just saying "this is who we are," and then we eventually got dropped. And we were able to take that music and come out with it on an independent label. And the rest is written in history.

So we're just really grateful for that moment to be creative and just be able to speak from our inner voice, the true gut. And being able to go through that process really gave us confidence in our voice and what we want to say. So as we keep growing as songwriters, I think we're going to continue to just dig deeper.

Songfacts: "Bones" takes on a whole different meaning when listened to through the perspective of being directed at the label.

Phillip: It wasn't that direct, but definitely there was that inspiration. I mean, it wasn't just the label, it was like: Man, we can't seem to figure this business out. And what did we do creatively, and why are we getting berated by the critics? This isn't who we are. We're not this poppy slick band. And I don't think the label necessarily meant to do it, but they were just trying to fit us into something that could sell records. In hindsight, I don't blame any one entity. It was just an overall kind of blanket, like, "No, this is who we are." We had a little bit of attitude, chip on our shoulder about it. And I think we just needed to write through that and deal with it.

Songfacts: I've heard that's been done by quite a few artists. So I don't blame you guys. It's all about the revenue for the labels.

Phillip: That's their job. They're supposed to sell records. It taught us, too, as an artist, that you don't depend on a label to tell you what you are or who you are. I think it's a real good lesson for young artists, too, it's so much more valuable and more rewarding when you can walk out and say, "This is who I am, this is who I want to be." And they help you do that. Then you can just go and be your most authentic self. It's hard to know what that fine line is between trying to sell records to a mass public and be believable and deliver music from your heart.

Songfacts: "Bones" segues so well into Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." Was there any connection there?

Phillip: No one ever said that in the room or had that idea, "We've got to write a song like 'The Chain.'" But it was probably in our subconscious. We grew up with it and loved that stuff. I don't think we set out to make music that sounded like that. And I really do appreciate the association that people have kindly bestowed upon that. But it really was all innocent.

Songfacts: What is one of your particular favorites that was truly inspired?

Phillip: "Lean Into It" was one I really love on this record that I think was a very focused emotion that we wanted to talk about and write about. And I just love that whole lyric and what it says about us. It's our story of persevering through tough times and I just love that song.

It was a group effort. The idea started with Wayne. He was inspired by our story of perseverance and we're always having to fight these little battles along the way, and it's never just been an easy path, like when you have one big song and you skyrocket to the top. It's always been a slower build for us, but it's always been strong and solid. So he was inspired by that story of us persevering and always holding our heads high. It builds strength when you can really work your muscles like that, emotional muscles. And instead of backing down when something scares you a little bit, just push through it. You're going to be okay on the other side of it. And I think we've kind of learned that by experience. So the years together and being together and having each other to hold one another's hand, so to speak, through the dark times, it's been the most rewarding thing. And I know I have great friends above all else, and that's really cool.

Songfacts: That's definitely an inspiration. You guys are in it for the long haul. You've already been together for 12 years. That's longer than most marriages.

Phillip: (laughing) That's what people say.

Songfacts: Was "Kiss Goodbye" inspired by children, perhaps?

Phillip: Well, I wish we had written that one. Gordie Sampson and Hillary Lindsey and Steve McEwan wrote that. We listen to lots of songs, too, because, being a songwriter, I know there's something out there that might move me more than something I wrote myself. And that was what happened with "Kiss Goodbye." We actually were going to record the next couple of days and we had to strike one of the songs we were going to do and put "Kiss Goodbye" into the mix, because we just loved that big, soaring chorus, something we hadn't really done before. And we just fell in love with the song, and it was beautifully written. Love it.

Songfacts: Was that one that was pitched to you guys, then?

Phillip: Yeah, it was pitched to us. We must have been listening to too many songs that day and just didn't hear it. And then one night Jimi was at home listening through some songs and he listened to "Kiss Goodbye" and he started to get really excited, and then he put the headphones on Karen. She was sitting at the computer, so they emailed the song, we all listened and agreed and it came together. I went and played piano on the track at the end, it just gave it a nice, real lush quality and I love that. And we hadn't really ever done a song like that for Little Big Town. I thought it was cool we got to do that.

Songfacts: Let's cover "The Reason Why." Who is the person that came up with the words to that, and what does it mean to them?

Phillip: There's a lot that goes on between the four of us to split it equally and share ideas. For "The Reason Why" particularly - and this is kind of a snapshot of sometimes how it works - I think Jimi had started that idea, the melody, and had written the lyric, but had a little bit different take on it. It was a little bit more of a cocky take. It was more of, "I could love you if you want me to." It was a little bit more of a taunting more than alluring kind of thing.

But he worked on the lyric and brought it to us, and when we came together to write, he was like, "What do you all feel about this?" And we all liked the idea and the melody was cool, and that whole thing - twelve string chunky guitar at the beginning - had a cool feel to it. But we all collectively just felt like the mood would feel better and it would reflect us more truly if it really talked about the love, the goodness that we're feeling at this moment right now. And "I could go and fall for you and never even try," because that was the truth about where Jim and Karen are with each other, where we are in our relationships respectively, in our life with young kids coming into our world in the last two years.

And so there's been a lot of joy and happiness where we're at in our career and our lives, and it's just like, Wow, how cool is this that we're getting to do this and right now we're having this amazing time and we're all happy and we're all friends; we're not fighting. So there's a lot of layers of emotion there for that song to come out of us. That's why it felt like it could have multiple meanings, whether it's relationship or a loved one. But it's being thankful for the things in your life that make you motivated to wake up every day.

But that's where we took that song, just that love approach. It all starts between two star-crossed lovers, everything comes from there. So when that's strong, good things can happen, and that song just felt right for the lyric direction to go there. It needed a big jangly jam at the end, and we had those lyrics, "Come on and take my hand, I'm ready and willing over and over again." Just that joy of love.

Songfacts: I saw that one, you guys did it on The Talk, and Jimi and Karen were just singing it right to each other, and I thought okay, that's what's going on here. (laughing)

Phillip: Yeah. (In his best porn-movie music imitation) "Bom-chicka-bow-wow." (laughing)

Songfacts: (laughing) Touché. Can you tell me about a song that you started writing or that you had the idea for, predominantly?

Phillip: There's a song called "All The Way Down" that we were writing one day over at Wayne's studio and just being creative and the song came to mind. The song we were trying to write just wasn't hitting us or something. So I had a lull in the thought process and I had this idea. And I grabbed the guitar and I said, "Hang on, I'll be back." And I went out into another room and just sang this melody into my phone. And I had, "Going down, down, all the way down." Just had that idea, just felt like a good, easy-feeling slow song. And I came back into the room and it was like, "Hey, what do you all think about this?" And they lit up. And it came out really fast in that afternoon.

So we stopped what we were doing on one song, I came in with this idea, and we started working on "All The Way Down" and just fell in love with it. It was one of our favorite ones we wrote towards the end. And it's still in that same kind of vibe of "The Reason Why," because we had written them really close to each other as far as the emotional context, of falling in love and being in love and how good that is.

We tend to write dark and moody songs, and this (The Reason Why) is our chance to just be lighthearted and feel good, and we love that. That's a side of us, too. That's who we are. There's just a real deep well of emotional content we can go and explore, because there's four of us and we're all human and we're not always in the same place in our lives. But it just so happens that we're all sharing this feel-good journey moment along this journey together. It's just been really cool.

Songfacts: On the opposite end of that spectrum we have "You Can't Have Everything."

Phillip: That was a song that we had started, I think, the previous album. We were writing for A Place to Land, we had always wanted to do this really classic stone cold country song. And the idea of the song was to have all these beautiful things, but the one thing that really you need to hold it all together, the glue - the love - is missing, it's vacant. So I guess you can't have everything.

And the original lyric was "Oh well, you can't have everything." And it just felt like after you say, "we have the family photograph, the house, the ring, everything, but the one thing missing here is…" saying "oh well" felt kind of trite. But it wasn't. It was more like there was a real deep sadness there; "I guess you can't have everything." So we just switched the words "oh well" to "I guess." Which totally gave that emotion much more impact and depth.

We kind of vicariously lived through Kimberly's emotion of her losing her husband to a heart attack several years back. We let her play the role of the actress, of the loss that you experience in the song. But she really experienced a loss of death in her own marriage. So there was a lot of emotion to dig from in there. But we started writing that in the previous record, and then when we came around to writing for The Reason Why, we dusted it off, and that's when we changed the "oh well" to "I guess." And everything came together, and we were like, "this song feels perfect." It says it.

Songfacts: Was it a difficult one for her to sing?

Phillip: I think she was at the place where she was strong enough to play that emotion out without it overwhelming her. I think she had a few moments where it was emotional, but she was strong enough to step out and come back in. It wasn't like just total breakdown, which it had been in the previous record. That's why we couldn't go there and really make that for A Place to Land. It wasn't ready.

A lot of songs can stick around and then they find their life, they find their home. So to us, we always just try to stay open and we always try to sift through some of the ones that didn't make it from the last one. Very few of those even make it to the next process, because you always want to write the next thing or the new thing or this new idea you're inspired by.

The band remembers their own crucifixion in the press as if it happened only yesterday. Justifiably aggravated with Sony for the public beating they took, they turned their anger into a song. The result was "Bones," a haunting melody that delivers poison darts straight into the flesh of the big machine. Phillip explains, "With 'Bones,' we were kind of towards the end of getting dropped from Sony at that time. And this was before we actually met and got the whole Equity deal (a new label started by fellow country singer Clint Black). At the time, Mike Kraski, who used to be the president of Equity, he was still the GM at Sony, and we were making new music and he eventually got fired right after we got dropped."

Kraski himself may still harbor some justifiable resentment with Sony's mishandling of the band. In an interview with Craig Havighurst on Nashville Public Radio, Kraski tells of the Stepford Wives-like transformation Sony forced upon the band. "They came off as too pop. They came off as a contrivance. They looked like posers and they really were not, and they ended up demonized in this industry as everything that's wrong with country music, instead of being the special thing they could be for the format and for music as a whole."

Karen Fairchild's memory of their first release on Sony is painful. "Kimberly and I were roommates, of course, and boy we got a phone call that, well, knocked the wind out of us. It was a really bad review, and that started it. And they started coming in." And Kimberly's is equally somber. "That was May 21," she says. "That was the day the record came out. We were so excited. Even though we had lost those battles, we still had high hopes for the record."

Kraski explains what happened next: "Someone decided that none of those (songs) were hits, and they dropped Little Big Town from the label, and a few short months later, through reorganization, I was out of a gig at Sony, and shortly thereafter we started up Equity, and the first act I had a conversation with was Little Big Town."

They say the best revenge is to live happily.

A few years later and millions of albums sold, we think LBT is doing exactly that.
Songfacts: I've just got to throw this in here: I find it ridiculous that you guys are not the ones winning all of the awards instead of Lady Antebellum. I don't get that.

Phillip: Well, I appreciate your sentiment there. The thing is, we celebrate anyone who has success in this business. And honestly, Lady A are - I said "Lady A," I even did that whole thing - they're on our same label. So we're friends. We knew them when we came over to sign at Capitol and they were just beginning to break through. And there's some real talent in there. They did this brilliant thing where they had this really good song and all the pieces of the puzzle, like management and label, and all the elements of their team were firing at optimum level. And people just caught on to it.

So I'm happy for them. And I'm glad it's decent quality music. I'm happy for our label. I'm trying to be as political as I can be. (laughing) I do know that I think they're good people, so I'm happy for them. But I want to see us achieve that same height or higher of people catching onto our music on a large scale.

And we got a little taste of that. Our previous album, A Place to Land, had some action in the U.K. "Fine Line" was a single over there on the BBC on the pop charts, and it got A-listed, which is their version of heavy rotation. Our music has a broad appeal and I think when we strike the right moment, for whatever it's worth, I think we'll see that kind of broad appeal on a mass commercial scale. But I love doing it the way we've done it and the fans that come see our shows and buy into what we do, I think you hopefully will want to continue to hear what we do for a long time.

Songfacts: Unlike Taylor Swift and Lady A, a lot of your music doesn't need any revamping for it to easily crossover into rock and roll. You don't even have to do anything to it. It just needs to go there.

Phillip: Well, I hope we have that kind of appeal in a broad way. It's cool, because I think that can be your best friend in a lot of ways, because for us it's like we have our thing, our uniqueness and our niche. And at the same time, sometimes it can create a stumbling block for some radio programmer who wants something that sounds more commercial, because you can change it and make it more pop or make it country. It's always a little bit more difficult when you just try to make good music and if it can fit in other places, that's great. But for us it's just about being authentic - whatever that song needs and wants. We're not just saying, "Oh, we've got to put a fiddle on it to make it country." That's not really what our goal is when we're crafting a song.

Honestly, when you start going down that path, you start chasing your own tail. You're not following your own gut instinct at that point. You're just trying to add an element that feels more like manipulation. It's not so much a manipulation when you go into creating a track, it's just crafting and going on your gut instinct and what feels right to give this emotion its justice, so to speak.

But people do it every day and make it work. I mean, Lady Gaga made a country version of "Born This Way," and did a pretty good job. But still, you're going to have those people that like that kind of stuff, too. So to me, I don't want to knock it and be like "it can only be this way." The good thing is that hopefully what we're seeing now as country is really broadening its scope. And pop artists want to get played in country. They want to come over and have their song made over into a country hit. So it's a big deal. Country's got its swagger on right now and it's a good thing for music. Because I'm thinking we're going to see a lot of diversity. I think there's always going to be an element of things where they're popular only right now. And there's going to be things that kind of stand the test of time.

Songfacts: I understand that after your first label dropped you, you all went back to working your day jobs. What was your day job?

Phillip: Oh, well, all kinds of little things. I mainly worked part time at a liquor store. Some other musician friends, we all helped each other out, like "Hey, I got a show this weekend, can you cover my shift?" kind of thing. And then I was working just little odd jobs. I worked as a telemarketer for a bit, because you can be anonymous on the phone. I think I was giving away free dance lessons for this dance studio.

Songfacts: And how successful were you?

Phillip: I got 20 people to sign up. I was very engaging on the phone, apparently. (laughing) I don't know how good I was. I tried to stay motivated, but it was hard when I was doing that plus trying to fit in shows and stuff. At that time, we were basically playing anywhere they'd pay us cash money to get there. So on the weekend sometimes we'd be jumping in a van and for $500 go and play a show opening for someone like Keith Urban at a club, a House of Blues somewhere. It was like that was the life and you just had to keep it going. And for us, we still had that small group of fans that were loyal and they still come to shows today, even to this day we see them. And that's what's so cool. You went and played those little shows in clubs and people remembered, and it was worth it.

Yeah, we all grew up in these small little towns and those kind of ideals were what we were raised around, so we were able to really take that with us out in real life. We still value that stuff about love your family and love your country and take care of those around you. We definitely haven't forgotten where we came from. We've got a way different life than we used to have. I don't have to work for a telemarketer anymore. But I ain't ever forgot it, either.

It's crazy. It seems like time has flown by. And it's not like I feel like we just started this yesterday, but we still have a real fresh perspective and really love it. Now we've got buses, and it's a way different kind of gig than driving yourself in a minivan, man, I'll tell you what. I'll go with this any day. (laughing)

Songfacts: You ever call anybody up just on a whim and say, "Hey, you want to buy a dance lesson?"

Phillip: (laughing) I probably have the script still burned into my DNA, I've said it so many damn times.

Phillip took a break from their current tour to talk to us on April 14, 2011.

Get Little Big Town's current CD at, and while you're at it, buy one of the whole library - if you don't, you're missing out on something ridiculously good.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Eric SutterI too, love this band... I have followed them since the beginning and have seen them twice. I hope to catch them live again if they tour the Northeast again.
  • Minnie Swirl from Southern CaliforniaThey're like gumbo, they have all these different flavors mixed together and the final product is awfully tasty. I soooooo agree with the comment about Lady A winning tons of awards while LBT sits and claps in their seats. It is ridiculous. LBT is amazing.
  • Craig De Gail from Newcastle, AustraliaI love this band, great dymanic country sound, rock country fusion maybe!! ANyway, great sound guys. love it.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Chris Rea

Chris ReaSongwriter Interviews

It took him seven years to recover from his American hit "Fool (If You Think It's Over)," but Chris Rea became one of the top singer-songwriters in his native UK.

Name the Character in the Song

Name the Character in the SongMusic Quiz

With a few clues (Works at a diner, dreams of running away), can you name the character in the song?

Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles

Timothy B. Schmit of the EaglesSongwriter Interviews

Did this Eagle come up with the term "Parrothead"? And what is it like playing "Hotel California" for the gazillionth time?

Rupert Hine

Rupert HineSongwriter Interviews

Producer Rupert Hine talks about crafting hits for Tina Turner, Howard Jones and The Fixx.

Protest Songs

Protest SongsMusic Quiz

How well do you know your protest songs (including the one that went to #1)?

Grateful Dead Characters

Grateful Dead CharactersMusic Quiz

Many unusual folks appear in Grateful Dead songs. Can you identify them?