The first single from country quartet, Little Big Town's, fifth studio album was penned by Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird. Hemby came up with the idea for the song after her publisher misheard the title of "Fine Tune," a cut she and Laird wrote for Miranda Lambert.
Speaking with Songfacts, Dean explained: "She was really frustrated with this person for not understanding. Their job was to really know our stuff, and they didn't. But Luke heard that, and at that point, we really wanted to write it. I started Googling: Is there a 'Pontoon' already? Because you'd think, with the '90s in country music it had already been done. But it wasn't. There weren't any pontoon songs. I was, like, 'Are you kidding me?' And I looked at Luke and said, 'We're clear.'"
A pontoon boat is a flattish boat that relies on pontoons to float, which are used for both pleasure boating and fishing in the US. According to Sweet all four of the group's members had pontoon-boat experiences while growing up.
At the 2013 ACM Awards, we asked Little Big Town if they were concerned about the title. Here's what they said:
Kimberly Schlapman: We weren't really concerned until we went to London. We realized they really have no idea what a pontoon is.
Jimi Westbrook: We thought everybody knew what a pontoon was.
Karen Fairchild: Yeah, we grew up on pontoons and on the lake, and it's part of southern living. And I guess we just assumed everybody knew that. Motorboating is also very universal. [Laughing] If you didn't know what a pontoon was, you had another shot.
Little Big Town's Phillip Sweet told The Boot the quartet on hearing the song, "fell in love with it instantly." He added. "We could hear ourselves singing it and we could feel the fun energy behind it. It's fun and sexy and summertime; it just feels right for right now."
Karen Fairchild admitted to Billboard magazine that the band had some doubts when they first heard the song. "Natalie sang the demo and we thought, 'Man, that's a song that you've never heard.' First of all, who's ever written a song about a pontoon? Never heard that. But having a chick sing it? I don't know," she confessed. "There's something weird about the delivery when we heard Natalie sing it. And so we thought, 'This song is cool. It sounds like something country fans will really love if they could get a chance to hear it.'"
This was the very first Country #1 for the Little Big Town quartet, who had been recording for 10 years. It was a huge breakthrough; their previous best placing had been "Bring it On Home," which peaked at #4 in 2006. LBT quickly rose to the top tier of country music, scoring a huge hit in 2014 with "Girl Crush."
For the writers of "Pontoon," who had a hard time finding an artist to take a chance on the song, it was a special feeling. "They'd been through three labels and maybe that many managers," Barry Dean told us. "It had been a ride. So there was a lot of pressure on that first single coming out, and they chose to bet on that. That was my first time feeling that: You're excited you got it cut and you're excited you got a single, but you care very deeply and you want to make sure that it helps them. That was the first time I kind of gulped and realized these artists are taking a risk. They're betting on me and our song. That was a real wake up call for me."
In Nashville, getting a song to the right artist involves making a quality demo to show off the song. The songwriters are often talented singers and musicians, which was the case on "Pontoon."
"For the demo, Natalie was pregnant and laying over on a couch with a handheld mic," Barry Dean explained in his Songfacts interview. "It had a weird electric guitar and a drum-machine beat, and it had a vocal. That went to Dierks [Bentley], and he hated it. Then it went to Kix Brooks, who sent us an email that said, 'This is hilarious, but there's no way I would cut it.' And at that time, Kix was about to do a solo album, but he was taking a break. If he wanted it, we would still be waiting.
So Little Big Town heard it with their manager and they picked it up. They had a vision for it. Jay Joyce, the producer, he and [engineer] Jedd Hughes put on that 'uh-a-u-a-ow' - that signature riff was not on the demo.
It was a mandolin Jedd Hughes was playing, and producer Jay Joyce is playing a mellotron mandolin keyboard thing with it. That's why it sounds so odd. So they put that on there and then did their Little Big Town thing. So the next thing you knew, it went from being kinda goofy, to being cool and sexy because of the way they are and the way Jay produced it."
The song sparked a fashion craze, as fans sported T-shirts adorned with a phrase from the song, "Mmm....motorboatin'."
The first line, "Back this bitch up into the water," is something Natalie Hemby came up with after Luke Laird goaded her into writing the song, which she thought was a stupid idea. "Luke has a way getting people to do things," Barry Dean told Songfacts. "He was like, 'Come on, what would you say?' And the first thing out of her mouth was, 'Back this bitch up into the water,' and we just fell out laughing."
This was the first song that Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird wrote together. "We had each written with the other, but we were excited to get to write together," Dean recalled to American Songwriter magazine.
Once they came up with the title, they were off and running. "Luke started playing the groove," said Dean. "I started playing bass on a synth. Pretty soon Natalie sang the first line of the song. When we got back together to finish it – which was really writing it - we used the same track we'd started. It was essentially a drum groove, electric guitars, and a bass line. Natalie who was quite pregnant sat on the couch, held an SM58 and sang it once, and that was the work tape."
This song, along with the rest of the Tornado album, was produced by Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Eric Church, Cage the Elephant). Speaking with Billboard magazine, Karen Fairchild gave due credit to the producer's contribution to the record. "Jay is a great moderator of what feels good," she said. "He lets his heart guide him. We really don't over think things. If we're in the studio tracking a song like 'Pontoon,' and we've done it a few times and it feels good, that's it. He says 'Let's move on.' There's no reason to keep going if the vibe is right. There's a lot of fun, and a lot of spontaneity, and I think our fans can hear it on the album."
After coming up with the hook for the song and the first verse, the three songwriters put it aside. Seven months later, they reconvened. Before Natalie Hemby arrived, Luke Laird and Barry Dean started working on the song. She was prepared to start something new, but when the guys showed her what they were working on, she helped them finish the song.
The song opens with a mandolin lick played by Australian Country musician Jedd Hughes doubled by Jay Joyce with a mellotron mandolin sample.
Little Big Town had been nominated for at least one CMA Award at six consecutive ceremonies since their first nomination in 2006, but walked away empty-handed each time. They finally broke their duck in 2012, picking up Single of the Year for this song as well as Vocal Group of the Year. "We' re living proof that if you work really really hard and chase your dreams, all the good stuff happens and it follows you," said Karen Fairchild.
The setting is Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, specifically a section known as "party cove," where many a pontoon party takes place.
This won the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. Karen Fairchild later told reporters backstage how they played around with the song in the studio. "We messed with taking the reverb off the vocal on 'Pontoon' and pulling it down a little bit and it didn't feel the same," she said. "We didn't know if anybody would play it because it was like that but the fans seem to dig it."
Phillip Sweet added, "They like motor boating in reverb," which brought the room to laughter.
The most surprising place that Barry Dean has heard this song was during his wife's high school reunion. He recalled to Billboard magazine: "They were doing karaoke, and somebody did 'Pontoon.' They didn't know I'd written it."
Camille from Toronto, OhJune, 2012. I just saw this video on TV today and can tell it's gonna be a BIG hit for a group that well deserves it. They have a fabulous sound and the video is perfection. Way to go!