Picture a group with the physical make-up of the Mamas & the Papas or ABBA and a sound reminiscent of the Eagles or Restless Heart, and you've got Little Big Town.

Picture a group with the physical make-up of the Mamas & the Papas or ABBA and a sound reminiscent of the Eagles or Restless Heart, and you've got Little Big Town.

But there is nothing contrived about this Southern foursome, which came together in 1998 when its members realized their voices blended into a sound that was something unique in country music. With the singers switching off lead vocals multiple times -- all within the same song -- Little Big Town's members (Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads, Phillip Sweet, and Jimi Westbrook) are fond of saying of their sound, "The harmony is the lead singer."

Roads says the group decided early on not to have a lead singer, but the Music Row establishment had a hard time with the concept. "In the beginning, people really questioned that and said, 'You can't make a whole record when you don't have a lead singer,'" Roads recalls. But, Fairchild adds, "we are world-music fans, so we've heard it done before. It may not have been done much in this format, but we knew we could do it if we do what the song calls for and make sure we're protecting the lyric. So we just stuck to our guns on that one, even when people said, 'You're going to have to pick someone to sing lead.' We [said], 'No; just watch and listen to what we're going to do.' And luckily, it's been the very thing that attracts people to us."

After a false start at Mercury Records that ended because of a difference in creative vision, Little Big Town signed with Sony Music Nashville's Monument Records in 2000 and will release its eponymous debut album May 21. At Sony, the group has been given unusual latitude in following its creative muse for a new act: It co-produced its album and co-wrote six of its 11 songs. Also guiding the album were producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, associate producer David Lyndon Huff, and mix master George Massenburg.

As for who sang what, the group decided to let that evolve naturally. "It's not like we started out saying we each would sing 2.5 songs," Fairchild says. "We just said, 'Let's take it song by song and... follow whose voice fit what song and what part of what song.'"

That approach made for a lengthy recording process, as the group experimented with different voices in different parts. Another reason the record took a year-and-a-half to record is that the group realized that the typical Nashville recording process of "musicians first, vocals later" wasn't working for them.

Fairchild says, "We wanted the tracks to have drama, so we said, 'Let's try to do it backwards. Why not start with a layer of vocals with full arrangement and acoustic guitar?' Then [we could] bring in a drummer, bass player, whatever we wanted after that."

Little Big Town says the album benefited from that experimentation. Sweet says, "It was a new experience for [Chancey] to have four lead singers, so it was a very open, free kind of, 'Let's all experiment; let's work till we get it right [environment].'"





Excerpted from the May 11, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.

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