Originally published in the June 29, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet is the current proof. Actually, he’s the missing proof. During an early morning sit-down at Little Big Town’s PR firm in Nashville’s affluent Green Hills neighborhood, three-fourths of the quartet is present. Blond-maned Southern belle Kimberly Schlapman is already bubbling, a morning person if there ever was one. Husband and wife Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild are not quite up to Kimberly’s Mach 1 morning speed, but they are both affably sipping on their go-go juice in an effort to get there. Jimi is texting on his phone. Karen is fixing a bagel (smearing it with cream cheese, not rebuilding its carburetor). Kimberly and I are discussing her recipe for Rosemary Pork Chops from her new cookbook, which I prepared the night before—to rave reviews—in an effort to ensure a conversation starter. But where’s Phillip? That’s the million-dollar question. Surely no man was left behind in the most sinful of cities. He’s coming, they assure me.
LBT is back on their home turf after performing at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas 36 hours beforehand. It was on the MGM Grand Garden Arena stage that LBT teamed with Faith Hill to sing their “controversial” single “Girl Crush,” which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart the week before. Labeling the song “controversial” is actually more controversial than the song’s initial controversy. Confused? Don’t be. Here are the song’s CliffsNotes: “Girl Crush” hits country radio in December, and in March The Washington Post publishes an article that cites radio personnel at stations in Waco, Texas, and Boise, Idaho, reducing the song’s weekly spins because a handful of fusspots carped that it was a lesbian song. But the real rub is that it’s not a lesbian song, it’s more of a psycho ex-girlfriend song, if you like to label things. Nonetheless, in the wake of all the hullabaloo, LBT’s peers came to the song’s aid, rallying support by sporting “Girl Crush” hats on social media and performing the tune, including covers by Miranda Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Kelsea Ballerini and Halestorm.
The story was more of a non-story, as 139 of the 145 stations that report to Nielsen BDS to track airplay confirmed playing “Girl Crush”—and in many cases, the song was thriving with heavy rotations. Regardless, all the scuttlebutt certainly helped shine a spotlight on a beautiful song about a woman pining for her lost lover . . . male lover, that is. More on that in a moment, because Phillip has just walked into the room with a splinted hand, busted knee and big smile.
“Sorry I’m late . . . whiskey deterioration,” he says, grinning ear to ear as he offers up the excuse for his tardiness. “Old age, man. Vegas followed me home. I’m just falling apart. I actually twisted my knee just walking through the casino.” This statement elicits a series of chuckles from his bandmates, and now Phillip is laughing, before he finally eeks out, “Never mind.”
He could have stopped talking after “whiskey deterioration.” No other explanation was needed. These are four grown-ass men and women, all in their early to mid-40s, and all currently reaping the benefits of country music’s risk/reward system, which clearly states: risk it for a biscuit. Or, as Thomas Jefferson more profoundly said, “With great risk comes great reward.” And the risks LBT is taking have nothing to do with lesbian songs. Instead, if you dissect their most recent album, 2014’s Pain Killer, you’ll find a Jay Joyce–produced record (Eric Church’s The Outsiders) with elements of reggae (“Pain Killer”), Celtic folk (“Live Forever”), hard-rocking bluegrass (“Save Your Sin”) and pop country (“Day Drinking”), in addition to the aforementioned ethereal ballad “Girl Crush.”
Now that Phillip is present, the group goes into Combiner mode, which is ’80s cartoon talk for a group of Transformers that are able to join together and form one super-robot. On their own, each member of the group is an autonomous go-getter. For instance, Kimberly recently wrote her own cookbook, Oh Gussie! But get Kimberly, Jimi, Karen and Phillip in one place together and they form the super-robot Little Big Town, and one of their superpowers is the ability to constantly finish one another’s thoughts.
“When we made the Tornado record [in 2012], we really stepped out of our comfort zone, thanks to Jay Joyce,” starts Kimberly. “And that success gave us the courage to do it again on Pain Killer and be bolder, so I would say the choice to take more risks is both conscious and a natural evolution of our music.”
“It’s not fun to not move the needle with people,” Karen takes over. “It’s a lot more exciting to have polarizing music, and yeah, you get some people who don’t like it, but you also get new people, and your core fan base is always willing to let you stretch and grow. Those fans that have been around watching us for years don’t mind us spreading our wings a little bit. We just have to do it, musically as a band, we just have to. We’ve always been this way. Stretch a little bit and see what happens.”
“I think it’s rewarding,” continues Phillip. “It makes us thrive when we get to take risks. We go out there and play these songs every night and it keeps us in this place of excitement.”
“The next album is going to be insane,” boasts Jimi. “You can’t even believe everything we’re gonna do. It’s wide open. We’re going intergalactic next.”
“Yeah, it’s gonna be a dance-rap-polka-blues album,” jests Karen.
It’s not surprising that the group can function in this Combiner mode, especially when you consider they’ve been together for the last 17 years, and together, they’ve run life’s gauntlet, from deaths and divorces to nuptials and newborns. But now, after years of sweat equity, it seems like Little Big Town has finally found their musical sweet spot, and if you need convincing, just take a gander at the recent additions to their trophy case: 2013 Grammy for Best Country Group Performance; 2013 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Original Song; 2013 and 2014 CMA awards for Vocal Group of the Year; 2014 Grand Ole Opry induction; 2015 ACM award for Vocal Group of the Year.
To borrow a gambling metaphor from their Vegas trip: LBT now enjoys pushing all of their chips in the pot and showing their hand. It’s that risk-versus-reward scenario again. Kimberly, Jimi, Karen and Phillip aren’t the Vegas tourists who sidle up to the poker table in Hawaiian shirts and lose their rent money because they go chasing a straight. They know the cards they are holding, and you can bet that those cards are consistently better than just about everyone else’s in the game. After all, nothing is a sure thing, unless you want to count death, taxes and people who gripe, which brings us back to the ado about “Girl Crush” and the caterwaulers who couldn’t see the forest for the trees because they couldn’t tell the difference between a forest and a prairie.
“‘Girl Crush’ was much ado about a little something,” says Karen. “We had some program directors who had to initially back off of it because of phone calls, and they are friends of ours, and they are just doing their job listening to these complaints, but luckily what happened is the people who loved the song started calling in requesting it—and there were a lot more of those. Program directors have been great to encourage listeners to listen all the way through, and they played it more instead of less, and that helped make it more familiar.”
“It was blown out of proportion a little bit,” adds Jimi, “but there was a handful of people who were griping and complaining—and you’ll always have gripers. You can bet on that.”
“Yeah, gripers,” continues Phillip. “It was also weird that those same people weren’t really listening to the full lyrics of the song. They were only halfway listening and making a judgment on it based on something else.”
“What’s been overwhelming and humbling is the support of our artist and radio friends,” says Kimberly. “So many of them have covered it or worn the hats. And we didn’t ask for any of that, they just did it. Partly because they love the song and partly because they wanted to show their support for a song that was unfairly judged at first. It’s humbling that that many people would take the time to make a stand.”
“It’s so good for country music,” concludes Karen. “The song is important for us right now. We love to have the ‘Pontoon’ songs and the drinking songs because they make the live shows so much fun, but we are all itching to get to these substance songs that really talk about things, and that’s what country music was built on. It really shows off the format when we get to stand up there at the Billboard Awards and sing this beautifully crafted lyric by three of Nashville’s best songwriters [Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose]. It makes me proud, and maybe it’s opened up a dialogue about not being afraid of songs of substance.”
With that, the group breaks out of Combiner mode, and Kimberly, Jimi, Karen and Phillip say their goodbyes before heading off in different directions to take care of non-Combiner matters before they regroup in a few days for the rest of their date-heavy summer tour schedule. The bad news for Phillip: on June 26, LBT is headed back to Las Vegas.