From left: Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town photographed March 15 at Printers Alley in Nashville.
Magazine Feature

Little Big Town, Nashville Royalty With an Outlaw Streak, Wants to Heal America

The members of Little Big Town — Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet, and Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook, who have been married since 2006 -- choose to believe that, in Westbrook’s words, “music always unites.” “We have simple things we fall back on as a foundation of the band,” explains Fairchild one recent afternoon in a drafty but bright downtown Nashville loft. “Family, faith, taking care of each other.” Which may be why they’re somewhat at a loss to weigh in on what’s happening just four blocks away, at the Municipal Auditorium, where President Donald Trump has staged a rally timed to the 250th birthday of Andrew Jackson. Roads have been closed, news cameras dispatched and thousands of people have gathered, despite the mid-March cold snap, to participate in -- or protest -- the event.

Fairchild, 47, who was busy choosing the band’s outfits for that day’s photo shoot, didn’t even realize Trump was in town. “That’s why all those people were out there with the hats on,” Westbrook, 45, points out to his wife in a tone of gentle amusement, referring to the wearers of “Make America Great Again” ball caps he’d spotted from the second-story window. Fairchild was “happier” not even knowing about the nearby spectacle, notes Schlapman, 47.

Indeed, the polarizing scene down the street clashes with the convivial conversation, fueled by paper cups of red wine, about the ability of music -- in particular, country-pop like Little Big Town’s, all feathery, four-part harmonies, easy sentimentality and stylistic fluidity -- to bring people together. But it also fits right into it: Before Trump came up, the band was discussing how the combination of politics and social media feeds an ugly impulse, as Westbrook says, to “tear people down.”

David McClister
Phillip Sweet of Little Big Town photographed March 15 at Printers Alley in Nashville. 

Little Big Town is hardly radical in the context of pop music, and while it’s often compared to Fleetwood Mac, its four members agreeably sharing two tour buses -- as they do now, with spouses and preadolescent kids in tow -- is a far cry from the cocaine-dusted, partner-trading ’70s exploits of John, Stevie, Lindsey, Mick and Christine. Lindsey Buckingham even told them that they were wise to limit the romantic pairings in the group to the one between Westbrook and Fairchild. (The two have a son. Schlapman is married with two daughters, and Sweet, 43, has a daughter with his wife.)

But in Music City, LBT is unique: It’s a coed vocal group that’s progressive but not polarizing and as steeped in soft-rock smoothness as it is in country’s core values of rootedness and authenticity. “They don’t sound like anybody else,” says Vince Gill, who asked them to sing harmony on his 2016 album Down to My Last Bad Habit. “In the history of country music, there’s nobody like them.” At this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards, LBT won vocal group of the year -- its fourth win in the category.

The act is also open to -- and adept at -- reaching across musical aisles. It has performed with Ariana Grande; covered Alicia Keys, Oasis and Katy Perry; and in major TV appearances been called upon to honor both David Bowie and (at the 2017 Grammys, where it appeared twice) the Bee Gees. In 2016, LBT released a surprise album, Wanderlust, produced by hip-hop wizard Pharrell Williams, and while on tour, played Beyoncé’s Lemonade on repeat. When Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks stole the show at last November’s Country Music Association Awards, the whole band was thrilled. Sweet, who says he found the backlash to the genre-bridging performance “bizarre,” remembers thinking, “‘Man, country is legit right now.’”

David McClister
Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town photographed March 15 at Printers Alley in Nashville. 

In other words, nearly 20 years since it initially formed and 15 since it released its first album, Little Big Town is not only Nashville royalty -- with eight top 10 country singles, three No. 1 country albums and a 2016 Ryman Auditorium residency, the first in the history of the venue, among its credits -- but a designated ambassador to the wider music universe. “Little Big Town fits a broader stage because of their musicality,” says Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville. “They have the ability to bend genres and appeal to worldwide audiences.” The band’s Jay Joyce produced latest album, The Breaker, debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums and No. 4 on the Billboard 200 in late February and includes the group’s most recent hit, “Better Man,” which was written by none other than country-pop crossover queen Taylor Swift.

But it was “Girl Crush,” LBT’s No. 18 Billboard Hot 100 hit from 2015, that first won the band mainstream recognition -- and also encapsulates how it (gently) challenges Nashville pieties. (Music Row aces Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose wrote the song.) Some radio listeners were scandalized by the lyrics, sung by Fairchild, in which a jealous woman fantasizes about her female rival. “We were secretly hoping people would use their brain power a little better and listen to the whole song, as opposed to just shut it off after they hear this one thing,” says Sweet. It wasn’t even the allusion to same-sex attraction that had the group concerned ahead of the single’s release: The song is a ballad with a 6/8 time signature. “Just the sheer tempo was controversial” for country radio -- then dominated by rowdier party tracks -- says Fairchild.

David McClister
Jimi Westbrook of Little Big Town photographed March 15 at Printers Alley in Nashville. 

The intrigue over “Girl Crush,” naturally, helped attract pop fans. The track also won LBT two Grammys, for best country song and best country duo/group performance. “We ran into pop artists at the Grammys that had never given the band a look,” says Sweet. “Nick Jonas loved ‘Girl Crush.’ ”

In 1998, Fairchild and Schlapman, friends from their time together in a choir at Alabama’s Samford University, handpicked Westbrook and Sweet to round out a coed quartet. The vision, which Fairchild now describes as “barefoot in Saint Laurent,” was to blend down-home warmth with decadent harmonies. LBT quickly joined the new-artist circuit with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan, who began racking up hits while the quartet watched first one, then another label deal disintegrate. The band weathered divorces -- Fairchild’s and Sweet’s -- the sudden death of Schlapman’s first husband and new marriages all around.

Along the way, the band's genial perseverance won over more successful peers in in the industry. Carrie Underwood was one of the first arena headliners to take the group on tour. "Having Little Big Town out with us was a no-brainer," she says. "It was easy to see that they had something special — they just needed the rest of the world to have the chance to hear them."

It wasn’t until LBT had secured an enterprising new manager, Jason Owen, and signed with its third label, Capitol Nashville, that it finally scored a Hot Country Songs No. 1: the lighthearted 2012 summer jam “Pontoon,” its 13th single. And it was years into its recording career before it began writing songs that singled out perspectives from one gender and developed its arrangements into showcases for individual voices in the group. It’s most often Fairchild out front, but during the course of an album, everyone gets their chance.

David McClister
Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town photographed March 15 at Printers Alley in Nashville. 

"We try to look for ways to show the individual talents, because we’re proud of each other,” says Sweet. It’s his low, grainy timbre that anchors the vocal blend. Schlapman’s twang supplies effervescence at the high end; she’s by far the most Southern-sounding in the bunch. (She’s also the one with the Southern cooking show -- not to mention a nimbus of blond curls that might be the group’s most distinctive visual element.) Westbrook has a smooth tenor that sits closest to Fairchild’s broody alto.

"They write from the perspective of the melody and how the harmonies will work together,” says Lori McKenna, who has written numerous songs for the band. “The way they line up the harmonies and the words is magic.”

Kristen Barlowe
Westbrook and Fairchild with Elijah in 2017

Theirs is an egalitarian outfit, but one shaped by the personas of the two women who got the ball rolling. Westbrook calls Fairchild, a fashionista who launched a Macy’s clothing line in 2016, “our big-city girl.” “Being Southern doesn’t mean you’re stupid,” says Fairchild, who was born in Gary, Ind., but like the rest of her bandmates has spent most of her life below the Mason-Dixon line. “And being a woman in country music doesn’t mean that you’re simpleminded. You can be a complex, powerful businesswoman -- and there’s a lot of that in this business. We have a lot of role models.”

The male members of LBT, maintains Westbrook with a wry grin, “don’t have side projects.” He’s the least serious of the four, or at least, the one most easily amused by face-warping Snapchat filters. Sweet, on the other hand, has the mindful air of an introvert who has learned to speak up, though he has a knack for entertaining the children with hand puppets -- adults, too, when the whiskey comes out on the bus late at night.

All of their families travel with them. At this point, Schlapman’s the only one with a baby, her recently adopted daughter Dolly Grace, onboard. The three oldest children treat one another like siblings and regularly commander the green room for impromptu performances by their own band, Little Big Kids. Schlapman’s and Sweet’s daughters Daisy and Penelopi write folk songs together and strum an acoustic guitar flat across their laps like an Appalachian dulcimer. “Daisy’s dying for us to cut a Christmas record, because she has a song to pitch to us,” says Schlapman.

John Shearer/Getty Images
“I love that record,” says Fairchild of Wanderlust, Little Big Town’s album with Williams. “I don’t know if people understood it or not.”

Lately, Westbrook and Fairchild’s son Elijah has been telling them he prefers Bruno Mars and INXS to country. But he’s hardly impervious to his parents’ musical world. A couple of weeks ago, Fairchild caught him practicing hip-thrusting dance moves. “I said, ‘Where did you learn that?’ ” she says. “And he goes, ‘That’s my Luke Bryan dance.’ Thanks, Luke.”

It’s Swift, meanwhile, that LBT has to thank for its latest hit. She emailed Sweet “Better Man,” an anguished confession of a woman reflecting on her ex’s callousness, in 2016. That Swift, who’s not in the habit of offering her compositions to other artists, chose Little Big Town as her conduit back to the country airwaves says all one needs to know about the group’s current stature. Even so, the act got her blessing to play coy about its authorship for a bit -- crediting it to a “young singer- songwriter from Nashville” -- lest the song’s impact be overshadowed by people fixated on figuring out which of Swift’s former flings had inspired it. “Better Man” was beginning its climb up the Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts when LBT admitted Swift wrote it, and a slew of Swifties were turned on to the band.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Fairchild, Schlapman with daughter Daisy, Westbrook with his and Fairchild’s son Elijah and Sweet with daughter Penelopi (from left) in Nashville in 2011

Little Big Town’s latest single, “Happy People,” is about the closest the group has gotten to a pointed political statement, which is to say, not close at all -- Westbrook says the song is “a statement about humanity.” With their breezy delivery, Fairchild and her bandmates suggest that living in a world of difference isn’t a zero-sum game, that coexisting can actually add to people’s sense of well-being. “Here’s to whatever puts a smile on your face/Whatever makes you happy, people,” sings Fairchild.

“There’s probably not a house in America that’s not divided right now, disagreeing about things going on in the country,” she says. “If you can’t learn to look across the table and go, ‘I love you and I totally disagree with you, but hey, let’s have a glass of wine…’” she trails off.

“Why is it now OK to say horrible things about people?” echoes Schlapman, lamenting the venomous tone of social media. “Why is it now normal?”

“Because they didn’t go to Camp Elegance,” Fairchild shoots back, eliciting laughter. “They didn’t go to Mr. Manners class like we all did.” “Hashtag ‘bring back manners,’” says Schlapman.

This article originally appeared in the April 15 issue of Billboard.