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Concert Preview & Interview: Little Big Town

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Little Big Town
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The three-time Grammy Award winners, who picked up their latest trophy last month, make a stop on 'The Breakers Tour' tonight at the Schottenstein Center

If you haven’t heard Little Big Town’s The Breaker, you’re missing out on one of the best country albums of the past year.

Actually, it’s unfair of me to narrow it down to a single genre, because while there are enough moments on the record to satiate its purists, there are just as many places where Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, and Phillip Sweet leap fearlessly into sonic landscapes in which other country artists might not dip their toe. Album opener “Happy People,” “We Went to the Beach,” “When Someone Stops Loving You,” and “Beat Up Bible” fall readily into the former scenario as expertly constructed rural hymns.

But then there’s the brisk “Night On Our Side,” with enough of an alt-rock earmark that it could absolutely be something Jimmy Eat World might have cooked up for Integrity Blues. And “Lost In California,” which is pure coastal-soul reverie with its glimmering synths and fat drums. Or “Rollin’,” whose chorus conjures up the kind of big, brassy bursts of harmony that wouldn’t have been lost on ABBA.

So, let me rephrase: go listen to this album. It’s fantastic.

Little Big Town’s versatility hasn’t gone unnoticed in the industry, either. In 2016, they were tapped to appear on ABC’s Greatest Hits, on which they covered tracks by Alicia Keys, Oasis, and Sheryl Crow on an early 2000s-themed episode. Last year, they paid homage to the Bee Gees at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, and again as part of a more expansive prime time special that aired last spring. In January, they filmed a performance for the yet-to-be released I’m Still Standing tribute concert at Madison Square Garden celebrating Elton John’s catalog.

The foursome returned to the Grammy Awards this year as nominees for both The Breaker as Best Country Album, and Best Country Duo/Group Performance for “Better Man,” which was penned for the group by Taylor Swift. They walked away with hardware in hand for the latter, which they also performed during the ceremony.

“You know, going to the Grammys and performing, you feel like you’ve won already,” singer and keyboardist Sweet explained when I congratulated him on their accolades during a phone interview a couple of weeks ago. “So to win, it was just…wow…incredible. Incredible. For me, it means…not that it’s validation, because we make records for the love of the art. It just gives us a sense of, more than anything, our peers acknowledging our work. All these people are listening to our music and appreciating it, and it feels great. It’s a high honor.”

My conversation with Sweet was wonderfully disarming, and it was evident that he and his musical partners are deeply in love with their craft and continually in awe of their experience. As we chat, he pauses at a few points to engage ever so politely with personnel at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, where the band was rehearsing for their then-upcoming The Breakers tour with singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves and new traditional country trio Midland.

“I’m excited about Kacey Musgraves and Midland,” he says of their travel partners, who will accompany them for the first leg of what will end up being a 47-city road trip that extends through August. “Kacey’s music is so refreshingly cool.”

Columbus will get their chance to see the show tonight at the Schottenstein Center. Sweet shares that the band is anxious for their fans to experience everything they’ve been working on for the past several months in preparation.

“I’m about to walk into the production studio where we’re rehearsing. I’m excited to let folks see the production, and I’m proud of the art and the video wall and the stuff that we’ve done that will hopefully make the visual experiences match the sounds. It’ll transport you and take you to another place.”

Later this summer with a few country festivals peppered in, they’ll co-headline with Miranda Lambert on The Bandwagon Tour, which kicks off Charlotte on July 12.

What I love most about The Breaker are your harmonies, and I was really pleased to see that you paid tribute to the Bee Gees last year at the Grammys because they’re probably my favorite artists and they’re among the greatest harmony singers in history. But your vocal blend is really incredible, and even though I know the four of you aren’t related, your voices mesh in a way that I’ve only heard sibling singers achieve. How naturally do you find that mix? Is that something you work on regularly?

“That means so much, thank you! We all love harmonies, and I think there is a natural sort of sound our voices make when we sort of hit that right place together. You’ve got Kimberly on the top, and she’s that pure tone, and Karen’s a deeper, smokier tone, but can also do that airy vocal. And Jimi’s got this really amazing, strident baritone-tenor voice, probably more tenor than baritone. The colors of our voices play naturally that way. But definitely when we work on those songs, we try different configurations of the triad and see what’s tighter. Jimmy and I might sing the same note in the choruses, so that when you hear [it], it sounds fuller. You know, so it’s something we work on, and we listen for it. We always know when we’ve hit that buzz – we call it a natural buzz that happens. And when we find it, we go ‘oh…there it is!’ And I love it. That’s the joy of making music, and we’re always continually exploring that about our voices. And that’s why making records is so fun an exciting, you get to try new things.

And to get to sing for the Bee Gees, man, oh my God! That was so cool! And this year we got to honor Fleetwood Mac at the MusiCares event. We did ‘Dreams,’ and getting to play those songs…we were definitely influenced by that music, too. For us, it’s something we hold dear to our hearts.”

And I heard you just finished taping a Grammy tribute to Elton John, too. That had to be a phenomenal experience.

“Right? Getting to meet Elton was incredible, too. He’s such a kind human and just treated us all with tremendous respect, and his band, too. It was just incredible. I was standing up there with Miley Cyrus to my left, and we were in this ensemble performance at the end of the show. And she’s like, ‘I just feel like a kid in high school, like, about to be in the worst school play ever!’ [laughs] We were all up there and just felt like little kids next to the great Elton John.”

When The Breaker was released, you all talked about how its recording was a fairly arduous process because you had to narrow down so much good material. And that seems like a really fortuitous problem, because I’ve often read how albums get held up because they had to backtrack, or they had a creative impasse, or they still needed a to write and record that one hit single they didn’t come up with until after most of the record was finished. 

“It’s weird. The songs that are on that album all sort of have to go with each other. They have to feel like they’re part of the same world, in a way, because it’s a moment in time. We’d spent a lot of time in California the year before last, and as we were also making the beginnings of The Breaker, we also went out and made an EP with Pharrell Williams. We were in the same studios as Justin Timberlake, who was working on the stuff that’s out right now, so we were hearing Man of the Woods two years ago. And Bruno Mars was in the studio across the courtyard. So, we were all making music and just in a really creative zone, more important than anything. It was so interesting to see.

You know, we’d go to the studio out there in California to do the Pharrell record, and we’re writing and recording where I’m passing Harry Styles, and Bruno Mars, and Justin Timberlake, and I’m, like, ‘man! There’s some real creative energy going on right here!’ And some of my favorite records that are out right now is stuff they made, too. The energy was really supercharged. When we came back from California to do stuff with Jay Joyce in the studio, we brought those experiences with us – and it was just kind of this refreshing feeling to make this record. And I think you can hear that, you know? That sense of newness and openness…I don’t know, it was just an interesting creative zone we were in. I’m glad it was productive. It stretched us in new ways, and I’m really proud of that.

As far as the songs — the extra songs — sometimes we’ll go back and listen to them and go, ‘Oh yeah! There’s something there!’ Because there are a few we really loved, but they just didn’t fit the vibe of this record. So, yeah, we’ll probably go back and revisit some things. But usually you go back in and you want to start fresh and you want to record some of the new things you’ve been writing. It’s always about just being in the moment.”

Contemporary country music seems to be taking the shape of what I loved about mainstream pop music in the eighties and nineties, which was this real investment in melody and hook. As the four of you are picking and choosing songs and recording them, what’s the initial spark that tells you it’s something worthy of your time and energy to develop? Is it the melody line? The emotional appeal? The lyrics?

“It’s all of that. If it’s a melody, it’s something that lights us up. Like when we heard the Taylor song ‘Better Man’ and that melody and that chorus, we were, like, ‘man, that’s just a great country melody!’ You know? It was just testament that she’s a very strong writer, and she just wrote a beautiful, memorable melody that we wanted to sing again and hear again. And [we want] to feel inspired by the music — the process always starts with a song that gets us all going. On this record it was the song called ‘Free’ that started the flood of where this was going to go. We said ‘okay, this is the vibe.’ It had that feeling of nostalgia, it had that feeling of warmth to it, and the melody got us. And then other songs followed, like ‘Lost in California.’ It just kept coming and coming. And ‘The Breaker’ — that melody and chorus, it’s just something that moves you.

It’s a beautiful song.

“Right? Man, we fell in love with that song. You can tell when something’s written from a deep, true place. That’s the barometer. I don’t know how else to measure it other than how it makes you feel. We’re moved by and kind of driven by that.”

The complementary forces between you are really obvious. Where, then, are the places you find yourself disagreeing or diverging creatively? I don’t necessarily mean in a contentious sense, but are there specific places where you challenge each other that invoke a sense of growth or improvement?

“We all sharpen each other, really. I think that’s one of the best things about being in this band. We usually kind of have a similar gut instinct, and we try to follow that. But, you know, when someone’s not feeling it, we don’t try to talk anybody into anything, you know what I mean? We try to respect each other, and respect each other’s opinion, and listen to each other. Because then, if maybe one person’s feeling it differently than the other, at least we’re open to each other’s ideas to try it those different ways.

At the end of the day, we’ll come out with the best end result, you know? And maybe even discover something new that we wouldn’t if we hadn’t done that. I love the process, ’cause with the four of us we can kind of go back and forth and collaborate and bring all of our ideas to the table. We always look at it as there’s no bad idea – just say it and see what you’re feeling. And then someone else might interpret it differently and say ‘oh! Why don’t you try it like this?’ And for us, that’s the fun part.”

Now that Little Big Town has solidified themselves as the gold standard for all of these fantastic tribute projects, who would you want to see pay homage to your music 40 years from now when it’s your time in the spotlight?

“Oh my gosh. Oh, man! That’s a good question. [laughs] You know…ahh…gol-ly man! I don’t know many groups…I’m trying to think of groups that are doing harmonies…maybe Mumford & Sons?”

That’s a good choice. But it does seem that — and I’m not going to say it’s a dying art because that feels awfully dramatic — true vocal groups aren’t as prevalent as they used to be.

“It is. For whatever reason. Maybe because it’s not easy to do, necessarily.”

No, it’s not. Certainly not.

“As we’ve grown over time, we work at it. We rehearse and we’re always pushing ourselves. We want the sounds to come out and move you, and make you feel like the words and songs have made us feel – and we try to emulate that through our voices. There is just something special, too, about singing together. When we all sing together, it just makes us feel good, you know? We love it. I don’t think there’ll be a time where we won’t do that. We want to do it as long as they’ll let us keep doing it. [laughs]”

Little Big Town stops in Columbus tonight with “The Breakers Tour,” featuring special guests Kacey Musgraves and Midland, 7:30 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center, 555 Borror Drive on The Ohio State University campus. Limited tickets ($24.50 and up, plus taxes and fees) are still available at press time via Ticketmaster. Their latest album, ‘The Breaker,’ can be purchased or streamed via their official website

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