Success brings a wealth of changes for the resilient country rockers

For more than 15 years Little Big Town has delivered irresistible harmonies, timeless melodies and compelling songs—but the path to success has hardly been a straight line. In the late ’90s they landed a major record contract, but the deal fizzled. In 2002 the group released their debut album on an indie label—but it didn’t fare well. Three years later, the band turned things around when their second album landed three Top 20s, including the No. 4 hit “Bring It on Home.” But their third record was less successful. In 2010, the winds began to change again as their fourth album generated a Top 10.

Two years later, the platinum-selling Tornado proved a game-changer, scoring four hits—including their first chart-topper, “Pontoon”—and a Grammy. “It’s really humbling. We feel really grateful,” says member Jimi Westbrook. “We worked so hard, and it means the world to us. When our moment happened, the people we respect and love were pulling for us. It’ll be forever etched in our minds.”

With Little Big Town’s latest, Pain Killer, band members Westbrook, [Westbrook’s wife] Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet extend the streak by reconnecting with noted producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, the Wallflowers, Cage the Elephant) who produced Tornado. Likening him to a mad scientist conjuring sonic magic, Westbrook believes that Joyce’s creative process strikes a balance with the band’s perfectionist tendencies. “We want to get things just right, sometimes to a fault,” he says. “Compared with Jay, we’re complete opposites. But he trusts our instincts.”

Pain Killer embarks upon stylistic detours—from arena rock (“Save Your Sin”) to gothic pop (“Faster Gun”) and beachy reggae (title track)—that push the boundaries of the group’s previous material. Their songwriting process has also changed. “Success changes the dynamic,” says Westbrook. “This process was a little more laborious. In a perfect scenario, we’d be writing for the whole year. But that’s hard to do with the schedule we’re keeping. For this album we had to block out time.”

Little Big Town also tapped a stable of ace songwriters including Jedd Hughes, Ryan Tyndell and Natalie Hemby. “We did the recording differently this time,” says Westbrook. “We actually wrote in the studio. It was very productive, and the songs came together really well.”

Little Big Town has dealt with many changes, but one thing hasn’t wavered: mutual respect. “There are a lot of opinions, says Westbrook. “But we’re settling into our own, and we’re comfortable with who we are.”

—Blake Boldt

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