By Brian Ives
Little Big Town is on a roll: 2014’s Pain Killer album yielded their biggest pop hit ever: “Girl Crush,” which hit #18 on the pop charts (their first two twenty hit ever). Of course, it was also a massive country success as well, winning Best Duo or Group Performance at the GRAMMYs last year. They followed that up with an unexpected collaborative effort with Pharrell Williams, appropriately titled Wanderlust.
But while they were working on that album, they were also cooking up the follow-up, The Breaker, which is due out on February 24, the same day that they kick off their residency at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium.
They spoke to Radio.com about all of this, as well as what it’s like to work with John Mellencamp (the self-named “Little Bastard”), women in country music, and how difficult it can be to go against the grain in Music City.
On 2016’s Wanderlust, you worked with Pharrell. How did that collaboration come about?
Kimberly Schlapman: All we knew is that we were asked if we wanted to write a song with Pharrell, and of course we did, who in the world would turn that down? So we booked a couple of days, because he was coming to Nashville and we were just gonna get in the studio and write. But that was so productive and so much fun and there was such great energy that when the two days was over he said, “Let’s do that again,” and we said, “Okay, sure. Let’s find another couple of days.” And when that was over, we all said, “Let’s do that again.” And so we had no earthly idea that was gonna turn into a record, but by the time we were finished with those eight songs, we wanted people to hear it.
Phillip Sweet: And we were in a creative mode, working on this current project we’re talking about too, The Breaker. We were in a writing mode, and it was very good for us; it pushed us in a new place.
Karen Fairchild: I love Wanderlust. I think it’s such a great body of work, and I learned a lot in those sessions watching Pharrell and just the way he works, and he’s a real joy to be around. It’s been a real creative year for the band. Two records, [and being] on tour… this year has been just an overflow of creativity, but it’s been really good. That’s been really healthy for us.
And, of course, “Girl Crush” was a huge hit that exposed you to so many new people who may not have been fans before.
KS: It was a breakthrough year, for sure.
KF: It took us to new places. Standing on the GRAMMY stage and singing with that all-female string section and having that moment with those writers, those girls that are so dear to us, [“Girl Crush” writers] Lori [McKenna], Hillary [Lindsey] and Liz [Rose], it definitely elevated the band. We thank them all the time. We’re like, “You guys took us places that we’d never been before.”
This seems like it’s an exciting time for women in country music; the narrative that only guys get played on the radio seems to be changing, and now there’s all this great new talent like Cam, Jana Kramer, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris…
KS: We’re so proud of those women, and we’re friends with them, like Kelsea and Maren, they’re incredible artists, and they can certainly hold their own, so it’s wonderful for country music.
KF: Yeah, and I’m not gonna get on a soapbox about it, but it shouldn’t even be an issue. I don’t know why it is. I heard somebody say, “Well, maybe the women weren’t making compelling music,” and I just think that’s BS. They are. And it’s nice that it’s starting to turn. It can still keep turning, though. We need all of the colors in the rainbow in the format; that’s what makes it special. If you didn’t hear Loretta Lynn sing “The Pill”…
KS: Or Reba, or Dolly.
KF: Yeah, and they’re part of the fabric, and… I don’t know. I’m glad it’s turning. It still has a little ways to go.
But things do seem better than they were.
KF: So much better.
PS: It’s refreshing.
So, back to Wanderlust… how did you get involved with Pharrell?
KF: I think it was Blake Shelton; Pharrell had been talking about Southern harmonies —he’s from Virginia — and I think Blake is the one who said, “If you like harmony, Southern harmony, you should look up this band Little Big Town. They’re friends of mine.” And so that’s how the conversation started. And then Pharrell is friends with our publisher, so I think he reached out to Big John, and we got this email, “Do you wanna write with Pharrell?”
KS: We’re like, “What? What?” That’s something we did not ever expect.
What did you learn from that experience, from stepping outside of your lane, so to speak?
PS: I think it was good to listen a little deeper. And there’s a freedom of the creativity that I think we all needed a good dose of that to help us think outside of our own boxes inside of our own heads, let alone the collective one.
Jimi Westbrook: That was the beauty of that whole thing with Pharrell from the very moment that we started. We met him at the studio and sat down, and he had some grooves that he had put together. And I think he was kinda taken aback by how open we were too, because we had no preconceived notions of what was gonna happen. There was probably a little anxiousness. That’s a completely different world than we had ever been in, writing-wise. It was, from the beginning, wide open, and it stayed that way, and it was really refreshing. And it came down to nothing but the love of music and where do we go with it? What do we do next? What groove are we gonna write next? It was really good, and it was a different writing process, completely in the moment and not something that you do a lot of times in Nashville. But it was absolutely refreshing. That spirit went through the whole thing that we did with him, and it was a lot of fun.
KF: He listened to us having a conversation one day in the studio about how tired we were, because we were pretty tired. And we were talking about, “Well, you’ve just gotta work. Somebody’s gotta do it.” And he started just making this track.
JW: While we were talking. We were just kinda in the corner, and he’s in and out of the conversation, and then he’s like, what’s he doing?
KF: That’s where “Work” comes from: [sings] “Sunup, sundown, somebody’s gotta do it.”
It seemed like he approached you guys like you were a vocal group, rather than a country group.
KS: Yeah, he called it “Southern pop music,” which it is.
KF: We didn’t even know what we were making. He was like, “What is this?”
KS: We still don’t know what it is. It was so much fun. I think we can find ourselves getting bogged down in a recording process, and for what? For the expectations that are put on us? But in this project, there were no boundaries, there were no expectations, we didn’t even know what we were doing. It was just pure joy and fun.
KF: And it’s great not have to define something, and that’s what we kept trying to tell our fans and radio that didn’t seem to understand what we were doing. We were like, “Don’t worry, it’s just music. It’s supposed to make you happy and joyful,” and if there’s anything I think that we could pass on to our children, it would be that exploring is okay, discovery. And what someone else might deem as failure, might be the greatest joy that you’ve ever had in your life. You just have to try things. You have to.
Willie Nelson and Alan Jackson and Dierks Bentley and Kenny Chesney have all done albums that were considered “departures.” It seems like Nashville doesn’t always like that, they get worried.
JW: “Where are you going? Are you leaving us?”
So it’s a good thing that “Better Man” is a hit!
KF: It’s doing really well, yeah.
“Boondocks” really seems to express the place in the song. The message seems to me to be: “This is where we’re from, we’re proud of it, come join us!”
KS: We set out to write that song at a time when really nobody would have us. And nobody was interested in our music; we couldn’t get arrested. So we set out to show and prove who we were and where we come from. And I’ll never forget the day we started working on that in Wayne Kirkpatrick’s studio in Franklin, Tennessee, and how a new life—you could feel it, you could feel this resurgence where—how long had we been a band? Seven years-ish? And nothing really had happened. So it felt like, “Oh, there’s something to this song.” And I think the song is really special, because no matter where we are—we sang it for a bunch of soldiers in Afghanistan, and this was before it had ever been heard on the radio, and it became their anthem because everybody is proud of their roots. Man, that song’s special. It’s my favorite one to sing, every night.
PS: Even Lindsey Buckingham. We got to do a special with him on CMT, and he was saying that if it represents home to you, he said, “For me, it represents my home,” which is different from the South, or it could be anywhere.
KF: Yeah, it celebrates the home and things that are important.
KS: And pure.
JW: That was the greatest ever, the greatest thing.
How did you come to work with John Mellencamp? “Our Country” really resonates today: whether you voted for Trump or Clinton, you can take it as an anthem.
KF: Another inspiring person. John is an original. There’s no one like him, and he’s very intense and very serious about crafting a song. And I remember him schooling us late one night on a bus and going, “You know, you guys should be cutting songs like ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ and ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ I was like, “Well, yeah, of course we should!” But it was great to hear him articulate and kind of inspire us, like, “Don’t settle, and write something that matters.” And again, those moments of being in the studio with him, they were game changers for us. You cannot walk away from that experience and not be better. And you don’t have to believe the same things. You can, but that’s also what we’ve learned. We’ve collaborated with so many people, and I’m sure if we stripped it down, maybe we don’t always agree on core values or politics or whatever, but it doesn’t matter. We’re humans, and we’re connected, and we need a lot more of finding that connection right now in this country. We need to come together and figure out ways to connect, and maybe music is that language that can help us heal as a country.
How was he to work with? He named himself “Little Bastard,” he’s known to be a bit rough in the studio.
JW: Well, yeah, he’s a challenging individual.
PS: And he’s unabashedly unapologetic, and he’s not afraid to push you if he feels like it’s not going where he wants it to go.
KF: Yeah, and he’s like, “No! No. That’s not what I was thinking.” And then we’re like, “Well, what were you thinking?” We got to the point—I think the reason why we had a long friendship with him musically was because we eventually, we didn’t just cower. He doesn’t like people that cower to him. So I think once we were like, “Well, tell us what you want and we’ll do it.” And he’s really, really smart and really kind. He just doesn’t want anyone to know.
S0 tell me about your upcoming residency at the Ryman. I can’t believe no one’s ever done one before.
JW: A residency at the Ryman just seems to make sense. Maybe nobody ever thought about it before, but now it’s like, “Well, yeah, of course.” People come from around the world to visit that place. And man, what an honor to be the first people to do that. And it’s a celebration of 125 years of that amazing, beautiful place.
PS: The life of that building, just to know the history that it’s gone through, and that it almost didn’t make it through the ’60s and ’70s.
KF: Emmylou [Harris] was a big part of saving it.
PS: So it’s a special, sacred place, and it sounds so good in that building.
So what can you tell me about your residency, without giving too much away?
KF: The goal is to have it be unique nights—every night will be different—and to have special guests and collaborations and for us to pay respect to the people that have inspired us, and then also to introduce people that we think are going to be important in music. We knew what that opportunity meant to us. Like when Keith Urban brought us out on tour, and we played in front of his 15,000 people a night—such an incredible introduction. So the chance to invite people that we care about, like Brent Cobb, who just made a brilliant record, and he’s gonna do one of the first nights, and Ashley Monroe, who is an angel. So it’s gonna be really fun to have these nights of people that we care about like family.
Little Big Town’s residency at the Ryman kicks off on February 24. Check out their entire tour itinerary at Eventful.