Little Big Town is the dream that will not die.
During its six-year existence, country group Little Big Town has been battered by a series of professional and personal setbacks that would have destroyed most bands. But the four members have clung to one another, unshakable in their belief that they have something special to offer.
"Anybody else would have quit," comments Karen Fairchild. Adds Kimberly Roads, "We've been through so many storms that I have to believe that it's all been for a reason." "I feel like it was a path we had to follow," says Phillip Sweet.
"From the very first time we got together and hit that first chord, it felt right," Jimi Westbrook notes. "From that moment, we've believed in our abilities and in our singing together. It always felt like family. It IS family."
On their way to their Equity Records contract, Little Big Town's members worked menial jobs and played for peanuts. "All so we could just keep this dream alive," Jimi explains. "It was rough, but it all paid off – it brought us to the music that we have now," says Phillip proudly.
That pride is justified. "Boondocks," Little Big Town's debut single for Equity, is a swampy piledriver cleverly arranged to showcase all four singers. It's a performance of vocal passion and instrumental innovation. Elsewhere on the group's album are tracks that are equally ear-catching. "Live with Lonesome" is a wistful ballad. "A Little More You" is a twangy thumper, while "Wounded" has a bluegrass flavor. "Good As Gone" has a driving rhythm and a dense instrumental texture. And then there's the message song "Bones," a minor-key, dobro-laced masterpiece of vocal harmony precision.
The group is unique in country music in its configuration of two men with two women. It is also unlike any other in that there is no single lead vocalist – all four are capable of taking lead lines, and do so. Also unusual is the fact that for most of their performances, the larger-than-life Little Big Town voices are accompanied solely by Phillip and Jimi's guitars.
Those voices blend so effortlessly that you would think they'd been singing together since childhood. They haven't been, but their backgrounds are strikingly similar. All four began singing in church and with their families-and Phillip even performed in a family band. All four blossomed as musicians in college. All four have wanted to sing professionally since childhood.
Growing up in Cornelia, Georgia in the mountains of the northeast corner of the state, Kimberly Roads "can't remember a time when I didn't want to sing." She first performed in church with her father and sister, then began singing in talent contests at age 12. Her favorite album was Emmylou Harris' harmony-drenched bluegrass homage Roses in the Snow. The Appalachian soprano entered Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama as a music major. There she met Karen Fairchild, and the two soon joined a singing group, beginning the personal and professional bond that would only strengthen through the years
Indiana native Karen moved to Georgia with her family. Her family performed in churches, but she didn't begin to take herself seriously as a singer until her college years. Karen knew some singers in Nashville who encouraged her to move there to sing songwriters' "demo" tapes. She also began performing in a band that entertained at corporate conventions. Karen learned the music business by working as a booking agent.
Karen had been the first of the four to migrate to Music City, arriving in the fall of 1994. Several months later, her college-singing buddy Kimberly followed. In the meantime, Kimberly had married attorney Steven Roads and recorded a 1992 solo album. Kimberly moved to Nashville in late 1995. She and Karen soon reunited.
"We were brainstorming about what had never been done in country music," recalls Karen. "We tried to think of all the mixed groups that had ever been in the country genre. We couldn't think of a single one that was two girls and two guys. We thought, 'Why has no one ever done that? Let's do something different.'"
Karen had known Jimi Westbrook for years, because both were on the corporate-entertainment circuit. Jimi's gripping vocal style comes from belting out church solos in Sumiton, Alabama. "I think I was 12 the first time I did a solo at church," Jimi recalls. "I never wanted to do anything else after that. I played sports, but it all came to a head when I was up for the statewide competition in the high jump in my senior year. It was at the same time that our school ensemble was going to Florida to sing. I chose the ensemble. My coach was furious."
Jimi received a vocal scholarship to a community college, then transferred to other schools where he sang in assorted groups. With his college debts mounting, he took a job as a salesman in Birmingham. A week after he decided to quit, Karen called. Jimi arrived in Nashville to join the group in 1998.
"I grew up in a little town called Cherokee Village, Arkansas, up in the Ozarks," reports Phillip Sweet. "Music has been in my life since the day I was born. My mom played guitar and wanted to be a professional when she was young. But she got married, and five kids later, she never really got to fulfill her dreams. She was always playing music around the house. I would sit in front of her, mesmerized. All of us kids were musical. I started singing in church."
Phillip quickly became adept on keyboards and guitar. He wrote his first song at age 9. At age 10 he became a featured soloist in his church's touring musical group. He became a professional at age 15 by performing the tunes of Clint Black, Skip Ewing, Steve Wariner and other favorites in his mother's weekend country variety show.
"In high school, I chose music over sports," Phillip says, echoing Jimi's story. "I played football until my 10th year in school. I decided, 'You know, I'm either going to play music every weekend or play football.' So I chose music. I'm glad I did."
Phillip won a vocal scholarship to Arkansas State in Jonesboro. But the pull of Nashville became too strong for the aspiring singer-songwriter. He moved to Music City in the summer of 1997.
The Martins, a Southern-Gospel act, recorded two of Phillip's tunes almost at once. Encouraged, Phillip scheduled songwriting appointments during the day and worked nights stocking groceries or working as a security guard. Then Kimberly, Karen and Jimi tracked him down.
"All roads lead to the Amway Convention," announces Kimberly cheerfully. Sure enough, a man who'd been co-writing songs with Phillip had also been performing corporate shows with Karen. He suggested they meet.
"We knew this was it, from the first time the four of us sang together in Kimberly's living room," says Karen. "It was like a marriage."
The CAA booking agency and manager Rendy Lovelady had been following the act's evolution. After weeks of daily rehearsals, Little Big Town sang live for the company. CAA's enthusiasm and clout got the group auditions at record labels. A Mercury Records contract, negotiated by Kimberly's husband Steven, was on the table within weeks. With the label's backing, Little Big Town sang on the legendary Grand Ole Opry in 1999, as its public debut.
But eight months and four recorded songs later, the record deal fell apart, "because we were still trying to figure out who we were, musically," Karen believes. Then a second recording deal fell apart, and this time their producer departed as well. Luckily, Steven Roads had negotiated a song-publishing contract with Warner-Chappell that provided steady income to Little Big Town. And so the group marched on, this time to Sony's Monument Records division in 2001.
"We got tangled up in another kind of mess," says Phillip. "There were too many chefs in the kitchen," adds Jimi. "We lost key battles in the studio," concludes Karen.
Their sound was polished to a pop sheen. Their once-soulful vocals were reduced to vanilla pudding. Their visual image was so stylized that they looked like cast members from The Young and the Restless. The 2002 Little Big Town CD was greeted by savage reviews. When the label downsized, the group was dropped.
"We wrote, we sang, we were the real deal," Phillip comments. "But that whole image portrayed a totally opposite picture," adds Karen, "so everybody had the wrong idea. We got crucified."
Pain piled upon pain. Jimi's father died. Phillip went through a divorce. Last year, so did Karen. Then Steven Roads died suddenly of a heart attack at age 41 on April 6, 2005. Kimberly lost her husband, and the group lost its staunchest champion.
Throughout all of this, one bright light was songwriter-producer Wayne Kirkpatrick. He had co-written a song called "Pontiac" with Little Big Town for their first CD and had remained a supporter. After the Sony contract was cancelled, Jimi parked cars. Phillip worked as a telemarketer. Karen went back to Music Row office work. Kirkpatrick came to the rescue.
"We didn't have any money," states Karen. "Wayne offered to pay for this recording." Top musicians such as Gordon Kennedy (guitar), Jimmy Lee Sloas (bass), Mountain Heart's Adam Steffey (mandolin), Union Station's Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Ron Block (banjo) pitched in.
Little Big Town has continued to play shows, no matter how small or financially unrewarding. They have driven 24 hours straight through to Maine to make $500, just for the joy of singing together.
"That's when you find out if you're really doing it because you love what you're doing," Karen observes, "because you're willing to do it for free. If we can cover our expenses, we'll sing."
"If we didn't love each other, we'd kill each other," adds Jimi. "We each have our role. Kimberly is organized. Karen is always working and planning. Phillip and I are good at packing the suitcases." "Jimi and I are there for comic relief in the van," Phillip chuckles. "We keep the girls entertained."
"They are very much gentlemen," Kimberly hastens to add. "They carry and load our bags. They're the roadies. They're the guitar technicians."
"Kimberly is the peacemaker and the charmer," says Karen. "She's our little secret weapon. If we really want something, all we do is put her on the phone."
"All around, it's an awfully good relationship," comments Phillip.
And at last the singers of Little Big Town have been given free reign to pour their souls into their songs.
--- from the official Little Big Town website