Nashville Band Leaves Its Label, and Thrives

The country band Little Big Town has two Grammy nominations for its independent label CD, The Road to Here. It's their second album, and has already brought them multiple top ten hits. The group's self-titled first album was on a major label — but it flopped.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

For the country band Little Big Town, this Sunday's Grammy Awards have been a long time coming. The quartet formed in Nashville in 1998 and quickly landed a record deal, but they lost it when their first album failed commercially and critically. The group endured humiliating reviews, two divorces, and rejection up and down music row.

Then, an independent label offered them two things that are rare in the country music business: a second chance and control of their own music.

Nashville Public Radio's Craig Havighurst has their story.

CRAIG HAVIGHURST: For a brief time, the two men and two women who formed Little Big Town thought they were going to have it easy breaking into country music. They auditioned for a half a dozen Nashville record labels and got nearly as many offers. One big time executive ran out into the street after they had left their audition and said he'd sign them on the spot.

Mr. JIMI WESTBROOK (Member, Little Big Town): We thought we were on our way.

Ms. KIMBERLY ROADS (Member, Little Big Town): Yeah.

Ms. KAREN FAIRCHILD (Member, Little Big Town): Well, we paid our dues for three months.

HAVIGHURST: Camp members Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild joked about it now. But what followed wasn't funny at all. The quartet wound up on Sony Nashville, the modern-day manifestation of what had been Columbia Records, home to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and in more recent years the Dixie Chicks. All of those artists had battled the record company for control over their own sound and image.

Little Big Town was too new to the business to know when or how to fight, says singer Kimberly Roads.

Ms. ROADS: I don't think it was purposeful, but major labels are used to a system, and if it works, that they just keep doing it.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: It was I think more of a, you know, the downside of anything that's done by a larger committee.

HAVIGHURST: Karen Fairchild.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: You have so many people looking over your shoulder, and you start to really second guess yourself, and out comes something that's kind of homogenized.

(Soundbite of song, "From This Dream")

LITTLE BIG TOWN (Musical Group): (Singing) When I'm with you, dreams come true. Life is full and so enthralling. I feel like I'm flying, falling.

Mr. MIKE KRASKI (President, Equity Music): Unfortunately, what happens at the record companies is there's a tendency to want to sand off rough edges.

HAVIGHURST: Mike Kraski, a former marketing executive at Sony who helped signed Little Big Town, says songs like "From This Dream" didn't showcase the quartet's strengths.

Mr. KRASKI: And which end up on the other side of that is something that's not true to the artist, and I think that was more the case than anything at Sony. There were folks in A&R who had a vision that was much more pop leaning than the vision of the act. And I think that's what came through musically.

HAVIGHURST: Roads and Fairchild say that even though they knew the album wasn't exactly what they'd set out to make, the critics' reaction was a major blow.

Ms. ROADS: The reviews were very personal and very ugly. They were just rude. Some of the people who wrote about us just, you know, cut us very deep.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: People question us, are they really from the South? Who put them together? What producer, you know, made them?

Ms. ROADS: That was from…

Ms. FAIRCHILD: They picked two blondes and two brunettes to be in a band.

HAVIGHURST: In fact, they are from the South - Fairchild, from Atlanta, the rest, from tiny towns in Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia. The women in the band - friends from college - put the quartet together, recruiting Jimi Westbrook and Philip Sweet into a group that owes more to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or Fleetwood Mac, than to country music's famous vocal groups like the Oakridge Boys or Alabama.

(Soundbite of song, "Bring it on Home")

LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) When your long day is over and you can barely drag your feet, the weight of the world is on your shoulders; I know what you need. Bring it on home to me.

HAVIGHURST: That's "Bring it on Home" from the band's second album. But before that could come to pass, Little Big Town would have to pay the dues it didn't pay the first time around. The debut CD sold only 31,000 copies. They lost their record deal and their tour bus, and returned to driving themselves to shows in vans. Sweet and Fairchild each went through divorces, and Kimberly Roads' husband Steven, the band's first attorney and manager, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 41. Despite all, they swear they never even considered breaking up. Band member Phillip Sweet.

Mr. PHILLIP SWEET (Member, Little Big Town): I think it came from the beginning of Karen and Kimberly and their friendship, and how they carefully selected Jimi and I to come along for this ride. I think it was the right kind of personalities that - in those tough times we didn't drive wedges against each other. We drew it together.

HAVIGHURST: While the band members nourished their personal wounds and returned to parking cars and telemarketing to make ends meet, they found needed help from a songwriter and producer named Wayne Kirkpatrick. He gave them days and days of free studio time. He called in favors from session musicians to make recordings that sounded nothing like the Sony sessions, songs like the dark and moody "Bones."

(Soundbite of song, "Bones")

LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) You made that bed you're layin' on. Deeds that you have done, now you can't undo.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: Well it came from…

Ms. ROADS: Frustration.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: Yeah. We were sitting at the back porch at Wayne's Studio.

HAVIGHURST: And Fairchild says they were ready to write about what they had been through.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: It was about the seeds that you sow and what comes back to you, whether it's good or bad. And we were talking to ourselves too. We can either be bitter about things that have happened or we can sow good seeds and know that it'll come back one day. And we were just venting.

Ms. ROADS: We were a little angry that morning.

HAVIGHURST: The labels that had once courted Little Big Town throws them out. One of the only people willing to listen to the new sound was Mike Craftsky. Shortly, after Little Big Town was dropped from Sony, he was, too, a victim of record industry consolidation. He soon joined forces with country star Clint Black to launch Equity Records, a new, independent label. The first act he signed was Little Big Town.

Mr. KRASKI: And having been complicit in some of those mistakes put me in a position down the road to know the right thing to do, to fix that, I think. So maybe it was a path we were destined to take together so we would do it right the next time.

HAVIGHURST: That they did. The album, "The Road to Here," was released in late 2005. And its first single, an ode to small town life called "Boondocks," caught fire on radio.

(Soundbite of song, "Boondocks")

LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) I feel no shame. I'm proud of where I came from. I was born and raised in the boondocks. One thing I know no matter where I go, I keep my heart and soul in the boondocks.

HAVIGHURST: Little Big Town won over the critics as well. One prominent journalist wished in print that he could take back every bad thing he'd ever said about the band. Writer Chris Neil of Country Weekly magazine had a similar reaction.

Mr. CHRIS NEAL (Staff Writer, Country Weekly Magazine): From the moment I put it on, it was obvious that everything that was wrong with the first album had been made right, that everything they had going for them was right out front now.

HAVIGHURST: The band earned a platinum album for sales that will soon pass the one million mark. Billboard magazine awarded them artist of the year and album of the year honors for independent label releases across all genres of music. This Sunday, Little Big Town will vie for two Grammy Awards in the country category: best vocal performance by a group and best album.

At present, they are back in the studio, fairly confident that whatever bad luck their due in their career, is most likely behind them.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst.

(Soundbite of song, "Boondocks")

LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) You get a line, a get a pole. We'll go fishin' in a crawfish hole. Five-card poker on Saturday night, church on Sunday mornin'. You get a line, you get a line, I get a pole, I get a pole, we'll go fishin' in a crawfish hole. Down in the Boondocks, five-card poker on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning.

NORRIS: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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