ARUN RATH, HOST:
You are tuned in to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Over the last decade-and-a-half, the country quartet Little Big Town has weathered change on nearly every front. They were dropped by one record label and had another collapse underneath them before finally being picked up by a third. They faced death, divorce and children. By years end, the band had made the jump from small theaters to arenas and released a sixth album that landed on several critics' best of 2014 lists. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN has their story.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Backstage at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook remembers how simple things seemed when they debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in 1999 as a baby band.
JIMI WESTBROOK: Our very first public performance was at the Opry, and we only had one guitar at that time. So it was one guitar and four voices.
HIGHT: With the addition of a few backing instruments, the lineup's remained the same ever since.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONES")
LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) What goes around comes around. Feel it breathing down heavy on you. You made that bed you're laying on. Deeds that you have done, now you can't undo.
HIGHT: Great care was taken in selecting the voices in this outfit. Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman have been friends since their days in college choir in Alabama. They came to Nashville pursuing separate music careers but surrendered those plans to form a group. Their search for singers led to Westbrook first, then to Philip Sweet, who had to be convinced to back out of a deal of his own, says Schlapman.
KIMBERLY SCHLAPMAN: We sang with these other guys, and it either didn't feel like maybe the personalities would coexist or it didn't feel like the sound was right. But then when we sang with Jimi, instantly, there was not a question, that was right. Then when we went looking for Philip, same thing kind of happened.
HIGHT: The four of them intended to make the most of their harmonies and take turns singing lead. Sweet and Westbrook say they weren't interested in singling out a front man or woman.
PHILIP SWEET: We heard early on by some label people that maybe you all should pick a lead singer. You know, it'd be easier to kind of get your songs heard. And it was more consistent. But I think we never really bought into that idea.
WESTBROOK: I just remember in the beginning thinking it'd be a shame if you didn't hear those three sing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING IT ON HOME")
BIG TOWN: (Singing) When you're 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.
HIGHT: The tension between individual and collective expression used to tug on the quartet a lot more than it does now. A few years ago, they turned down the chance to record a song they loved because Schlapman says they couldn't quite wrap their heads around how to own it as a coed group.
SCHLAPMAN: We literally had those conversations many years ago. We were like we can't do that song because it's too much of a female song or it's too much of a male song. And that's part of our freedom now.
HIGHT: So when songwriter friends pitched them a tangled feminine expression of unrequited love called "Girl Crush" for the new album, they went for it. Not only that - they chose it as their current single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL CRUSH")
BIG TOWN: (Singing) I want to taste her lips, yeah, 'cause they taste like you. I want to drown myself in a bottle of her perfume. I want her long blonde hair. I want her magic touch. Yeah, 'cause maybe then you'd want me just as much. I've got a girl crush.
HIGHT: Before that came a much sunnier single that fit right in on country radio, an ode to skipping out on work to drink.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY DRINKING")
BIG TOWN: (Singing) I don't need a reason or a happy hour. Ain't hanging around for a fireworks show. Get a head start, a little sip of something. Off and running, here we go. One, two, three, here we go. Don't want to wait 'til the sun's sinking. We could be feeling all right. I know you know what I'm thinking. Why don't we do a little day drinking?
HIGHT: Fairchild and Schlapman are self-aware enough to realize that a party tune showcases only one side of what they have to offer.
KAREN FAIRCHILD: We also talk about stuff, like, hey, we just wrote "Day Drinking." Maybe we should say something that means something more. You know? I mean, but we also don't take ourselves too seriously.
SCHLAPMAN: Yeah. We're also complex and serious, too. There's four of us here. We are everything. We are every emotion.
HIGHT: It might seem like a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass singer would start to feel stuck in their musical roles the longer they're stuck with each other. But Fairchild thinks she and her Little Big Town band mates have figured out how to use their restlessness as creative fuel.
FAIRCHILD: The greatest thing about being in a band and the strength of having companionship and collaboration is also the thing that makes a band breakup because then you begin to feel confined. Like, who am I as an individual, as a writer, as a performer? Just all those things that I think individually we wrestle with.
HIGHT: Together they've learned they can exploit the host of possibilities that come from each of them wanting to both stand out and blend in. For NPR News, Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINGS YOU DON'T THINK ABOUT")
BIG TOWN: (Singing) I put my cards on your table, and I treat you like royalty. These are the things that you don't think about when you think about me.
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