Repainting the Town 

With back-to-basics record, country act achieves image makeover

click to enlarge Through loss, rejection and trials, Little Big Town have - stayed the course.
  • Through loss, rejection and trials, Little Big Town have stayed the course.

In May, Little Big Town went home from the Academy of Country Music Awards without winning either of the two awards for which they were nominated: Top Vocal Duo or Vocal Group and Top New Vocal Group.

But one gets the feeling that this quartet wasn't too crushed to fall short.

"We just were shocked that we were even up for that [Top Duo or Vocal Group] award," says singer/guitarist Phillip Sweet. "We were up with some of the biggest groups around."

It would only be natural if Sweet and his bandmates hadn't gotten their hopes too high. Not long ago, the prospect of having any success in country music, much less nominations for such prestigious awards, would have seemed like wishful thinking in itself.

The members of Little Big Town Sweet, singer/guitarist Jimi Westbrook and singers Kimberly Roads and Karen Fairchild had first landed a deal with Mercury Records about seven years ago, only to see it fall apart before a CD could be finished.

Next stop was Sony's Monument Records, which signed Little Big Town in 2001. This time, a self-titled debut CD got recorded and released in 2002. But it was an inauspicious arrival.

Overproduced and overly polished, the debut smoothed out the rootsy edge of the group's live performances and added a pop sheen to the mix. The CD was panned by critics and ignored by record buyers, and before long, Sony dropped Little Big Town.

But a failed album wasn't the end of their problems.

Around the time Sony cut the group loose, Westbrook's father passed away. Then, both Sweet and Fairchild divorced from their spouses. Finally, in April 2005, Roads' husband, Steven Roads, who had helped the group get its record deals, died of a heart attack. He was just 41.

Still, the foursome pushed forward.

"I think we all felt like when we sang together and played live, there was just something special that happened," Sweet says. "That was really what kept us going."

What also kept Little Big Town together was the support of Wayne Kirkpatrick, a well-known songwriter/producer in Nashville. When Little Big Town was dropped by Sony, Kirkpatrick agreed to finance the recording of what became The Road to Here CD.

This time, the group with Kirkpatrick playing a key role as a songwriting collaborator and producer turned out a gem of a CD filled with rootsy, bluegrass-tinged rockers. The sound has obviously struck a chord, as sales of the CD have topped 500,000 copies. The group has also notched a Top 10 country single with "Boondocks," and follow-up single "Bring it on Home" has gone Top 5.

Sweet is clearly enjoying Little Big Town's reversal of fortune.

"It's just exciting, and we're just amazed that we were able to put our hearts and souls out there, and people are responding to that and we didn't have to compromise anything," he says. "It feels really nice."


Little Big Town

Cowboys, 3910 Palmer Park Blvd.

Friday, Sept. 15, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $12, cash only; at Cowboys or Western Wearhouse locations.


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