If ever a band was going to be determined to avoid any kind of sophomore slump, it was Little Big Town.
Like any group that achieves the dream of having a hit record, Little Big Town faced the pressure to live up to the expectations created by its breakthrough CD, 2005's The Road To Here.
But for Little Big Town, that only begins to describe what was at stake with its recently released album, A Place To Land. That's because before Country music fans got to know the group, Little Big Town had seen two record deals fall apart, while a deal with Sony Records lasted only long enough to yield a 2002 self-titled debut album that was panned by critics for being overly slick and died a quick commercial death.
During the lean times, the four band members — Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet — had to take day jobs to make ends meet while performing on weekends and trying to get one more chance at a Country music career.
There were also serious personal hardships along the way, including divorces, and in the case of Roads, the death of her first husband from a heart attack in 2005.
"When you finally have some success, you sure don't want to lose it," Fairchild says. "You work so hard to get it. This band is still very hungry. We don't feel like we've arrived by any means."
Life for Little Big Town has finally taken several very positive turns over the past two years. There was the success of The Road To Here, which sold more than a million copies and produced four Top 20 singles - "Boondocks," "Bring It On Home," "Good As Gone" and "A Little More You." Little Big Town also went home in 2007 with the Academy of Country Music Award for top new vocal group.
On a personal level, there have been dramatic changes for the better as well. Roads has re-married, as has Sweet, and both of them have recently become parents.
As for Fairchild and Westbrook, they married each other, quite a turn of events for two musicians who have been working together since the late 1990s when they joined forces with Roads (now Roads Schlapman) and Sweet to form Little Big Town.
"It took us by surprise, that's for sure," Fairchild says of her marriage to Westbrook. "We were both in other relationships, so it wasn't until later on when we found both of us being single and spending a lot of time together, obviously in the band, (wondering), 'Why are we not together?' It was really the sweetest surprise for me in my life. Jimi is just what I need and I always knew we were great friends, but I never, ever, ever expected to some day be his wife. So that was a really nice surprise, and it's been great just to be able to enjoy the journey with him."
The music on A Place To Land certainly suggests that all is well in Little Big Town. The CD sounds very much like the work of the same group that made The Road To Here. Once again the four singers each handle lead vocals at various points, their rich and tightly layered harmonies remain a focal point in the sound. The songs retain the frisky spirit and rootsy, lean acoustic-based sound that defined the previous album.
"The talk was if it ain't broken, don't fix it," Fairchild says. "We know what the sound of the band should be, and we finally captured it on The Road To Here. So there was no reason to depart from those harmonies that the fans finally embraced."
But while The Road To Here and A Place To Land share many stylistic signatures, Fairchild said the group tried to stretch out musically in some ways.
"We dug a little deeper on the lyrical side of things and tried different textures, different sounds," Fairchild says. "I'm very, very proud of the way A Place To Land turned out. I really like this record, I think, more than The Road To Here and that's saying a lot for me."
Fairchild has good reason to be happy with the album, which is being re-released by Capitol Records after the band split in April with Clint Black's Equity Music Group. Once again, the group has delivered a strong and well-rounded set of songs from start to finish, shifting easily from the rocking "Fine Line" (which has echoes of Fleetwood Mac) and "Novocaine" (a thumping, swampy track) to the cheerfully chunky mid-tempo title song and the spare balladry of "Only What You Make Of It."
Little Big Town is currently mixing in new songs with fan favorites from The Road To Here on a headlining tour that runs through August.
"We'll hit a lot of the songs from The Road To Here that people recognize from videos and from radio," Fairchild says. "Then we'll also sing several new things from A Place To Land. And that's fun right now because we're trying things on the crowd."
LITTLE BIG TOWN performs a free show Saturday at Blue Ash's "SummerBration 2008" fest, at Blue Ash Town Square (at the intersection of Hunt and Cooper roads).