Little Big Town a chart-topping, award-winning band with a mission (and a mission statement)
Little Big Town is not the only band that began with a specific mission for success in mind. But this chart-topping, multiple-Grammy Award-winning Nashville vocal quartet is one of the very few bands — in or out of country-pop — that began with a mission statement.
Of course, talent and tenacity have also played a key role in the group’s path to fame, fortune and numerous concert tours, including the one that bring them here for a Friday night concert at the San Diego County Fair’s Grandstand Stage.
That path has led to a slew of top-selling songs and albums, a TV special with Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, hosting last week’s CMT Awards telecast, and national controversy about Little Big Town’s 2015 hit about romantic jealousy “Girl Crush,” which some listeners and radio programmers mistakenly assumed espoused a “gay agenda.”
Happily, there was no controversy when — in 2014 — Little Big Town officially became members of the Grand Ole Opry. It was at this same famed Nashville venue that the band made its live performance debut in 1999, on the very same day as being signed to its first record contract.
“It all goes back to when we sat down and wrote our goals and mission statement of our band, of who we would be and how we’d conduct ourselves. That was established from the beginning and it had the rules and guidelines we have followed,” said Jimi Westbrook, who is married to fellow Little Big Town singer Karen Fairchild. “I think we still have that piece of paper somewhere.”
Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman, who was doing a joint phone interview from Nashville with Westbrook, remembered exactly where their mission statement was written.
“It was in a van, riding to to some show that we got paid $200 for,” she said.
Schlapman laughed when asked how legible the band’s van-written mission statement turned out. “We have the worst handwriting!” she replied. “But we are the best whistlers!”
Like Westbrook and Fairchild, Schlapman and the fourth member of Little Big Town, Phillip Sweet, are also married, although not to each other.
The band’s musical and personal bonds have enabled the four to overcome adversity, from a personal tragedy to being dropped by their first record label.
In 2005, Schlapman’s first husband died of a heart attack (she has since re-married). Fairchild and Westbrook, who wed in 2006, only became involved after their previous marriages ended in divorce. (The parents of an 8-year-old boy, Fairchild and Westbrook co-star in the steamy video for Little Big Town’s 2013 lament, “Your Side of the Bed.”)
“We’re appreciative and grateful for what we’ve achieved,” Westbrook said. “And we try to convey that in how we conduct our business on a daily level. But the motivation we have has always been the powering force behind the band.
“I don’t think were ever satisfied, even now. As we’re making our new album, I feel as excited and invigorated about music as ever, maybe even more so. We’re constantly learning and seeing how this business can take you in so many different directions.”
The band gave a preview of its next album on last week’s CMT Awards telecast, which opened with a performance of their bubbly new single, “Summer Fever.” An infectious ode to the season its title spotlights, it joins “Pontoon” and “Skinny Dippin’ ” as a Little Big Town song that celebrates kicking back on, or near, a beach.
Stylistically, “Summer Fever’s” sleek grooves and lush vocals evoke the 1970s in general and the yacht-rock vibe popularized by Hall & Oates, Ambrosia and other smooth operators who rose to fame back then.
That ’70s influence has been evident in Little Big Town’s music for years, especially with regards to Fleetwood Mac, but perhaps never quite as overtly. Will the rest of the band’s upcoming new album also pay homage to the decade when disco and soft-rock both reigned?
“Yeah, there’s definitely a breezy ’70s thing happening with our songwriting,” Fairchild said. “Karen wrote ‘Summer Fever’ about seven or eight months ago and we just decided: ‘Hey, let’s put that song out for this summer!’ It felt like the right time, so we did it quickly. Then we figured out the rest of the record and it definitely has that breezy quality.”
Might this ’70s flavor be reflective of the era during which Little Big Town’s members grew up?
“We’ve always been inclined, since we started, to lean a bit toward that ’70s, sunny California harmony thing that we’ve always loved so much. So it’s a continuation,” Fairchild, 46, replied.
“We did grow up on that type of music,” Schlapman, 48, said. “It’s in our bones and we can’t help it. Over the years, the four of us let all our influences trickle into our music-making.”
Any band with an even number of members faces certain challenges, which often boil down to simple math. Namely, what happens when one half of Little Big Town disagrees with the other half?
“Well, as long as the boys just go along with what Karen and I say, that’s how it works. Just like a marriage!” quipped Schlapman, who then grew more serious. “No, we’re 25 (percent), 25, 25, 25. It’s all equal.”
“We’ve always had this rule,” Westbrook elaborated, “that we didn’t want to talk any of the other people in the band into anything, for any reason. You don’t want somebody who’s not all in. Oddly enough, we’re mostly on the same page, especially business-wise and regarding the direction of the band. It goes back to being in that van and writing our mission statement.”
For many bands, a major achievement is becoming successful enough to move up from a van to a tour bus. Little Big Town is no exception.
“We’ve done that a couple of times!” Schlapman said.
“We’ve moved from a van to a tour bus,” Westbrook agreed, “back to a van, then back to a tour bus and back to a van. … Man, we’ve seen it all, and it’s made us super-appreciative.”
Schlapman (born Kimberly Roads) started singing with Fairchild in 1987, when both were students at Alabama’s Samford University. The two later re-teamed in Nashville, where they joined forces with Westbrook in 1998. Sweet completed the lineup in 1989.
While trying to make an impact in the highly competitive world of music can require grit and stamina, it was a cake-walk compared to the worst day jobs Westbrook and Schlapman had when they were younger.
“I had to wash coal-hauling trucks, using hydrochloric acid, which is not a fun job for $5 an hour,” Westbrook said.
“My hardest job was my very first,” Schlapman recalled. “I was picking green beans in the Georgia summer heat. I got $2 a bushel — and it takes a long time to fill up a bushel. But I’m glad I did it. I still believe in the power of hard work.
“When we started Little Big Town, we had huge dreams of having this country-music career. We didn’t really know what that meant back then. Had we known then what today would be like, 20 years later, I don’t think we would’ve believed it. We have a really special story and bond.
“Looking back on those four kids with stars in their eyes, 20 years ago, I think fondly about those four versions of us. Because we had a huge dream and didn’t know how we’d go about achieving it. We just knew we wanted to make music together. Thank god, we’ve been given two decades.”
Little Big Town
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Grandstand Stage, San Diego County Fairgrounds, 2660 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar
Tickets: $27, not including fair admisison
Phone: (800) 745-3000