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Rewind with Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook

Little Big Town
Little Big Town
Copyright: James Minchin III

Little Big Town — Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet, and Jimi Westbrook — survived personal and professional hardships on their way to becoming one of the biggest names in country music.

The Grammy award winning group just released a new single, “Day Drinking,” to advance their upcoming album for Capitol Records Nashville, due in fall 2014.

Little Big Town released their self-titled debut album in 2002. The band hit their stride with their second album, The Road to Here [2005]. By year’s end, the disc had been certified platinum. Their third album, A Place to Land, led to their first headlining tour. When The Reason Why was released in 2010, Little Big Town had sold close to 2 million records, received four Grammy nominations, eight ACM nominations, nine CMA awards and walked away with ACM Top New Vocal Group.

Here’s a look back at Jimi Westbrook discussing “The Reason Why” Little Big Town resonates with millions of fans and how that album represented growth and change.

How is this album the next step in your timeline?

It’s definitely a picture of where we’re at in this period in our journey as a band. We’ve got new families on the road. Karen and I have a 19-month-old boy, Kimberly has a 4-year-old and Philip has a 3-and-a-half-year-old and we’re all on one bus. There’s a lot of happiness and contentment and such great things going on, and it’s reflected a lot on this record. Sonically, there’s a progression. We stepped out and did some things we haven’t done before. When we were done, I was real proud of the work, and I think people hear the things we’re trying to do to grow and be creative in different ways. Looking back through the years and all the things we’ve gone through, and when we were driving ourselves around in a van doing it all on our own, all brought us to this record.

What were some of the firsts and things you did differently?

I don’t know that it’s totally obvious to everybody. One song in particular, “Can’t Have Everything,” is a stone-cold country ballad that Kimberly sings. We’re such huge fans of old country music and those classic country songs, and we wanted to write one and show people that we do those kinds of things too. “Kiss Goodbye” is definitely another type of song that people haven’t heard from us. Even production-wise, there are some elements that maybe they haven’t heard us do. It was fun to step out and satisfying for us on a creative level.

Almost thirteen years — what has changed and what has stayed the same?

What has changed is the romper room that used to be a bus! That has changed in a beautiful way. There’s nothing better than to wake up and go into the front lounge and there are babies and toys and Mickey Mouse on TV. It has changed how the band operates and functions on the road in a good way. That is definitely a different existence, but we’ve very blessed to be able to bring our families on the road, because separation is the hardest part of this. What stayed the same is the people that we were thirteen years ago. We have the same mindset. We’re fighters and continue to strive to do better as a band. That’s what’s gotten us through these thirteen years and kept us relevant. We’re still that same core of four people we were when we started, when we were traveling in a van and no one listened to us.

The industry has also changed tremendously during that time. Has the new paradigm worked in your favor?

Those changes are what they are; it’s the progression of technology and the way that music is purchased and consumed. You think back to when we started and where we are, as far as the digital revolution and those kinds of things, it’s a completely different world, but I think it works in our favor. For connecting with fans and giving them a personal experience with the band, it’s been great. We do a cover series online that’s been a big hit with our fans, where we take pop songs and put our own spin on them, put Little Big Town harmonies on them and break them down to an acoustic level. We’ve gained a lot of fans because we’re showing a lot of diversity. People who saw us as one thing see that we can do other things. With a few clicks on a keyboard, fans can connect with you, and in that way it has been good for us. The accessibility of our music has been good for everybody.

In the past few years, there has been a wave of male/female groups. What kept you from being swept up into the vortex?

To be honest with you, and I don’t say this in a braggadocios way, we were the first. When we came into the format twelve years ago, there were no mixed groups in country music. In the beginning, people looked at us like, “I’m not sure about this. We haven’t seen anything like this before.” As far as the country format, it was us taking a chance. With all that’s happened in the past few years with these kinds of groups, the great thing is that there’s diversity. We don’t make music like Lady Antebellum or Gloriana. We all make different music and we separate ourselves with what we do. Staying on the path of who you are and not trying to be anyone else is the key to anything you’re doing. You have to find your own unique voice, and hopefully we’ve done a good job of that.

Four vocalists, four writers — is there a natural groove in terms of how songs are created and ideas are presented?

There’s this system, I guess you would say, that has emerged and it’s become easier. You don’t have to think about it as much. At the same time, being four individuals, there’s growth that happens and you navigate it differently, but it’s a good relationship still and continues to grow. A lot of times, especially when you write with someone new, they think, Oh my gosh; I’m going to write with four people and it’s going to be awful, this is too many cooks in the kitchen! But it doesn’t really work like that. There’s a respect level amongst the four of us and no egos. There’s a natural relationship that helps the whole process to work and it’s a lot of fun. It’s satisfying.

While artists in other genres are plagued with illegal downloading, ringtones, and people buying individual songs, you’ve sold almost 2 million records. Is country music the last bastion of record sales?

It seems to be the format that continues to sell records. I don’t know why that is. I do know that country music is driven by the songs. I think there’s probably a core of what the material is about, which is family and love and the ups and downs of life, and I think that resonates with people. Maybe the melodic sense of the song has been lost in some genres, and people are finding that in country music and that’s why the genre is gaining more fans. They’re finding what’s been missing and they’re buying whole records. The experience is sitting down with a whole body of work. People are buying more singles, but hopefully that’s a cyclical thing and it will come back around. There is an underground resurgence of vinyl that’s interesting to me. My nephew bought a record player, and he and his friends are into buying and listening to records, and that’s cool. It shows you that it does shift and change, but it comes back to the things that were great — sitting down with records and it being a musical experience. I hope that will come back around.

You all had previous experience prior to starting this band. What were some of the lessons learned that helped strengthen this group and prepare you to take the next step?

From the time I sang my first solo in church when I was probably 12 years old, I was bitten by the bug. From that point on, I never wanted to do anything else. For me, it was always just taking the next opportunity to sing in front of someone and always trying to take those strides forward to find a place to sing, to make a music career. It was small increments, but I always knew that I had to take the next opportunity. That’s been the case for all of us and it’s still the same: striving every day and not being satisfied with OK and “just getting by.” It’s striving to be great at something. We’re fighters, and we’re always trying to be better musicians and writers and better people. Those are things I learned along the way that continue to be reinforced within this band.

Little Big Town has been through so much, personally and professionally. Were you ever close to calling it a day?

None of us ever looked at each other and said that. I’m sure it’s normal to go through hard times and kind of doubt where you are and what’s going on and say, “Can I really do this?” But there’s never been a time that anyone in this band looked at the others and said, “I don’t know that I can do this anymore,” which I think is pretty amazing. We’ve gone through some really hard times on a personal level, one in particular is when Kimberly lost her husband a few years ago. He died at such a young age, and even in that time Kimberly never said, “I’m not sure I’m going to do this.” Maybe some of us wondered if this would cause the band to break apart — not that it wouldn’t be justified, going through an unbelievably painful thing — but she never did and we never did. I think we’ve always felt like we had more to give and there were things that people hadn’t heard from this band that we wanted them to hear. We walked through those times together. Those are moments that you usually walk through with family, and I think because we’ve done that with each other, it’s made us like family. We huddled together, put our arms around each other, and loved each other through it, and I think that’s gotten us to where we are.

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