A musical journey with Little Big Town

The point of this blog is to strengthen my writing muscles, so with this post I expand to include a little music. Warning: there’s definitely twang to be found!

I’m a fan of lots of types of music. I love classical and big band and marching band and pop and jazz and hip-hop and rap. I also love gospel and old church hymns. However, if I had to pick a favorite, I would say country and bluegrass. I love the old country: give me Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn and George Jones any day of the week. I love the Outlaws: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are big on my list of all-time musical crushes. And, yep, I’m in whole-hearted agreement over the popular bumper sticker, “God bless Johnny Cash.” I love bluegrass and secretly hope to start a bluegrass band (reality and learning to play the mandolin are only small obstacles to encounter at some point). I love the stuff that doesn’t get played on today’s country radio (see any of the above, plus many others): Patty Griffin, Charlie Robison, Dixie Chicks. I also love the stuff that falls under different genres like alt country, Americana, and folk. I could listen to the deep voice of Greg Brown anytime, any day, and I guess he’s considered folk. Sometimes, though, I really dig mainstream country music on the radio, even when I’m disappointed by the limitations and strict “genre-fication” of a commercial station.

Little Big Town

With a broad musical strokeLittle Big Town is a band that’s getting some mainstream country play on radio these days. I have become a big fan of this band over the last five or six years. I own all their CDs (save the first one) and have been playing the heck out of the latest album, Tornado since I bought it a couple of weeks ago. I’ve played the CD on repeat in the car and downloaded it to my MP3 player and selected most of their songs for my playlists. I turn it up every time I hear their infectious summer party song, “Pontoon.” That mandolin riff and their harmony parts fit perfectly together in a tune dedicated to fun, floating, and “mmm, motorboatin’.”

Much is made of the makeup of the band and the fact that they have no designated lead singer. Instead the two males, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet, and two females, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, together as a band since 1998, share varying vocalist duties. According to a recent interview with Billboard.com’s “The 615“, Karen Fairchild explains the band’s decision, “Because it worked for the Beatles, and it worked for Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, so why couldn’t it work in country music? We just stuck to our guns on that, and eventually it worked, it just took a while.”

In addition to recently celebrating a #1 at radio for “Pontoon”, the band’s album remained at the top of the country charts for five weeks following its release in September. To add to the buzz, they added two awards for “Single of the Year” for “Pontoon” and “Vocal Group of the Year” at the recent Country Music Association’s Awards. Forget milestones and awards, though, and listen to more of their music. I like the variety in trading off lead vocals. I like the Fleetwood Mac-esque (with whom they’re often compared) harmonies and the nods to 70s rock. I’m no scholar, but I can hear some of their musical influences: gospel, bluegrass, California rock (think Eagles and Mamas and the Papas), blues, swamp, and down-home country as it all comes together into Little Big Town.

Their breakout single, “Boondocks” released back in 2005 on the album The Road to Here, highlights the group’s strengths and really defines their sound.  There have been lots of other songs released to country radio proclaiming country pride, but this is a genuine anthem, not just an empty stab at airplay. As you listen, you’ll wish you were from a small town like this.

Enjoying their albums in order of release, you can hear similarities and the common themes of love and loss and family and a devotion to the rural life. Most of the albums from The Road to Here to The Reason Why focus on the harmonies, with the band members and producer Wayne Kirkpatrick sharing most of the songwriting credits. The songs can be dark or jovial, but their writing is subtle and the singing stupendous. Hear the percussion and harmonies in “Little White Church“, the lead single off the fourth album, The Reason Why (2010). The song is catchy and an appropriate stop along their musical journey. You can hear the band at once recognizing their sound and then it comes up again and changes. Can you hear the music traveling through the years between “Boondocks” and “Little White Church”?

Back to the current album, I love when an album has a little bit of everything and Tornado does. I love the party songs and the love songs and the sad songs and the revenge songs. The band switches it up with a new producer and looks to other writers for songs, while still contributing a few tracks. I don’t know if there’s ever been a better revenge song than “Tornado.” The words “Hide the sun until you pray/I’m a tornado/Looking for a soul to take” sung with eerie whistling in the background really make the song otherworldly and an album standout.

I’m always a sucker for a sweet and light love song and “Sober” doesn’t disappoint. Lines like “I love being in love/It’s the best kind of drug” and “I wanna walk that line a little crooked/And live my life a little on the rocks” make me think of the best parts of being in love and I enjoy dreaming of that lifelong love.

One of my favorite songs is “Can’t Go Back“, a song lamenting lost love and life’s tough trials. I take the lyrics to heart, “Some things you can’t go back to/Some things need left alone” and enjoy the sweet and slow process to a new direction. The album leaves with a sweet homage to small towns and rushing to get home to a big, but ordinary love in “Night Owl.” With references to “steeples and skyways”, “lonely and deserted streets”, and “county lines and water towers”, it’s a landscape I recognize and the sweet melodies take me right back there.

After the joys of an oft-played album, it’s sometimes hard to wait for a new music from a much-loved band. A regularly updated feature on Little Big Town’s website is their “Scattered, Smothered & Covered“, which is a fan favorite and the perfect antidote to waiting for a tour or new tunes. They take currently popular songs and give them a Little Big Town harmonious twist. Check out their bluegrassy version of Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way“, but I think my favorite is their cover of “Grenade” by Bruno Mars.

I’m digging Little Big Town’s musical journey and I can only look forward to more.

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