Little Big Town Welcomes Chris Stapleton, Sam Hunt, Andra Day to Ryman Residency Opener

Little Big Town perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.
Reid Long

Little Big Town perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

If you want to know where to find a superstar country act holding down a lengthy residency, you know where to go: Las Vegas. But someone had the crazy idea to book one of the genre’s leading lights for an extended stay in — of all places! — Nashville, so the vocal quartet Little Big Town have temporarily unpacked their suitcases and are encouraging fans to head to country’s “mother church,” the 125-year-old Ryman Auditorium.

“Oh my goodness, we’re at the Ryman, everybody! And we’re here all year long!” exulted Kimberly Schlapman, sounding a little surprised herself to be starting the run Friday night (Feb. 24). The band acknowledged from the stage that it was the Ryman operators’ idea, not their own, to come in as the 2300-seat venue’s first real anchor act, with return gigs scheduled at roughly two-month intervals in May, July, September and November. (The act is filling the gaps mostly with some overdue overseas touring.)

It’s not hard to see why they’d get this ask, or for that matter, just about any ask: As the group that gives pop-country a good name, Little Big Town are the best ambassadors to the outside world that the genre currently has… and they’re also universally beloved within it, thanks to a combination of talent, humility, and a good-guys-win story. In a time when the nation is divided along artistic as well as political lines, who wouldn’t want to host the least polarizing group in all of music?

LBT are currently topping the Country Airplay chart with “Better Man,” for which Karen Fairchild thanked its author, Taylor Swift — “wherever you are tonight!” she quickly added, tamping down any hope the audience might’ve had that the songwriter would show up as a special guest. But the group is pulling a Swift with this run of shows, bringing out an act (or two) to perform one of their own songs each night, at least if the first weekend was an indicator of future results.

Saturday night (Feb. 25), it was R&B singer Andra Day, whom the band recently spent a little time with, taping a Bee Gees tribute special after the Grammys in L.A. The night before, the guests were a little closer to home, starting with Sam Hunt, joining them for his current smash “Body Like a Back Road,” which currently tops three other Billboard charts (Hot Country Songs, Country Digital Song Sales, and Country Streaming Songs). Later, an a cappella group snippet of “Tennessee Whiskey” inevitably led to a walk-on by that oldie’s recent popularize, Chris Stapleton, who stuck around to collaborate on “Front Porch Thing,” one of several tunes he gave to LBT back when he was just one of the town’s primary tunesmiths.

Most anybody else’s show would deflate immediately upon a Chris Stapleton taking and exiting a stage, but Little Big Town can at least collectively match him for lungpower — plus, they knew how to pace it, placing his two-song cameo right after a full run-through of their new album, The Breaker, and right before a show-ending mini-set of their greatest or most effective hits.

Future gigs in the series will be closer to mostly-hits shows, the band indicated, saying that only this past weekend’s shows would be built around a full performance of The Breaker — “and then that’ll be it,” Schlapman reaffirmed, perhaps to remind fans who were impatient to get to “Pontoon” that they were witnessing something special. Friday night’s show was a particular test, not only of the audience’s willingness to hear an hour’s worth of material that had only been released that day, but of the band’s own familiarity with it: “We hope we remember the words,” she joked, “but you won’t know if we don’t.”

That folksy warning belied the fact that Little Big Town is the least-likely-to-flub act in country music, long having made immaculateness into a virtue in a genre that generally prizes roughhousing a little more. They also have a penchant for picking or co-writing songs that have the ring of instant familiarity, which made the full run-through of The Breaker less a chore for the audience than a full course of comfort food they just happened not to have tasted before.

Reid Long
Little Big Town perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

Although the new album is produced by their recent stalwart, Jay Joyce, the opening number, “Happy People,” betrayed just a hint of holdover sonic experimentation from the one-off EP they did with Pharrell Williams last year, marrying rural, acoustic sounds to an electronically enhanced shuffle beat. As co-written by Lori McKenna, it’s in the tradition of her Tim McGraw hit, “Humble and Kind,” offering a poetic laundry list of what it is that fulfilled people do or don’t do — one of the don’ts being “taking other people’s (happiness) away.” That’s as close to a political statement as we’re going to get in country right now, even if it’s just an inadvertently timed one.

From there, it was on to a variety pack’s worth of the musical tropes you hope for in a Little Big Town album and set. Though the new album doesn’t have an instance of erotic longing quite as striking as “Girl Crush,” Fairchild put her effortless sensuality to good play in “Lost in California,” which, with its throbbing bass and ambient synths, suggests there’s something sexier going on in the Cali desert than just rock-climbing. Schlapman held down the sweeter side by taking the lead on a nostalgia-trading gospel ballad, “Beat Up Bible.” The dudes of the group, Jimi Westbrook and Philip Sweet, hewed back to the blue-eyed soul side by taking leads on the album-closing “When Someone Stops Loving You” and “The Breaker,” which alternately lament and apologize for lost love.

Two Breaker highlights touched on the opposite poles the band is capable of hitting, even if they’re not an act that normally goes to extremes. “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old” was introduced as having been co-written by the group’s women the day after Westbrook’s sister succumbed to cancer, but it’s a surprisingly romantic song, emphasizing love in the shadow of mortality. On the opposite end of the scale, “Drivin’ Around” proved a surprisingly fun and young-sounding slice of rocking power-pop that could sit comfortably alongside Big Star’s “In My Car” on a playlist, even if IRL it’s hard to imagine Little Big Town hiring sitters just so they can go idle in traffic on cruise night.

One thing the new album doesn’t have, as it turns out, is anything that sounds remotely like Fleetwood Mac. Also, although they came up with the two greatest redneck singles of the 2010s in “Pontoon” (which was eventually performed) and “Day Drinking’” (which wasn’t), there’s no follow-up in that tradition. No huge loss there, as you don’t go see Little Big Town for the get-your-drink-on ethos that’s abundantly available elsewhere in modern country, even if they’ve done it well when they do it. You go to hear a group that can send the backup band off to an early bed while they close the encores with an off-mic, a cappella “The Beginning,” proving themselves worthier of the hall’s secular stained windows than just about anybody who could have been picked as a post-Opry house band. Church has rarely felt as inclusive.

Opening night set list:

“Happy People”
“Night on Our Side”
“Lost in California”
“Drivin’ Around”
“We Went to the Beach”
“Body Like a Back Road” — with Sam Hunt
“Better Man”
“Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old”
“Beat Up Bible”
“When Someone Stops Loving You”
“The Breaker”
“Tennessee Whiskey” — with Chris Stapleton
“Front Porch Thing — with Stapleton
“Stay All Night”
“Girl Crush”
“The Beginning”