Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman lived down the hall from each other one year at Samford University, a smaller college located in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a formative few years, and to this day, Fairchild still remembers how she and Schlapman would blast records by The Judds over a speaker in their nearly too hot, un-air-conditioned dorm. A graduation and several years later, Fairchild and Schalpman created one of the most well-established and adored country groups: Little Big Town.
Today, with band members Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook joining the leading ladies of Little Big Town, the group has just released their tenth studio album together titled Mr. Sun (out September 16).
“It sounds surreal,” Sweet tells American Songwriter about realizing the band has put out ten albums.
“Anytime we get to share new music, it’s amazing,” Fairchild adds.
Ever since the group’s breakout hit “Boondocks” was released in 2005, Little Big Town has become known for its rich, full-bodied tunes that oscillate between love songs and party anthems. A large part of the band’s success comes from the members’ uncanny ability to find balance in their craft. For instance, unlike many bands, Little Big Town doesn’t feature a definitive lead vocalist but rather draws on the vocal strengths of all members. The band built its sound on these four-part harmonies and the creative input of four singer/songwriters. And, after operating this way for over two decades, the band chemistry is so eminent that they seem to be more like family than friends. (Editor’s note: Fairchild and Westbrook actually are family; they married in 2006.)
And during the conversation, the band can’t help simultaneously complimenting and poking fun at each other. In one moment, Sweet and Westbrook are in awe of how Fairchild and Schlapman helped bring the song “Three Whiskeys and the Truth” to life alongside the songwriting supergroup The Love Junkies (Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose). And in the next moment, everyone is laughing at how Sweet occasionally can’t tell the difference between 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. “If he [Sweet] goes into deep sleep, good luck getting him out of it,” Westbrook jokes. Fairchild confirms, “He sleeps like a bear in hibernation.”
Sweet does clarify, however, that a good idea for a song has the power to wake him up, immediately.
And the band’s most recent collection of songs, Mr. Sun, comes on the heels of the 2020 album Nightfall. (We couldn’t turn off the Nightfall song “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” for weeks after its release. Didn’t want to either.)
“Nightfall was so much about what happens at night, the good and the bad. And this one [Mr. Sun] is much more looking ahead to better days,” Fairchild says. It’s a “Here Comes the Sun” approach to finding that balance between albums, or a “yin and yang” as Sweet says.
And it works—Mr. Sun is a bright, upbeat album heavily inspired by the groovy music from the ’70s. It’s an album perfectly suited for yacht rock hang-outs or rollerblading meet-ups. Inside the record, notes reminiscent of the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles ring out, but they’re all tailored to Little Big Town’s country expertise. Songs like “Gold” and “Heaven Had A Dance Floor” possess a particularly disco-defined sound.
But to get back to the beginning, Mr. Sun starts with a warm welcome in the form of the song “All Summer.” The song’s chorus is one of the catchiest we’ve heard in a hot minute or two, and despite the album dropping while the autumn weather swirls outside, “All Summer” seems fitting for any occasion. Later in the 16-track album, Westbrook changes the pace with a sentimental song that he started writing about 10 years ago. Titled “Rich Man,” this song focuses on the things that matter.
“It’s just one of those things that never quite felt like it was finished,” Westbrook says of writing “Rich Man.” “But at the same time, I wasn’t pushing it. So, every few months, I get out the guitar and play it. And then it kind of had this unexpected entrance into this album.”
Westbrook remembers playing “Rich Man” for a friend, before it was going to be on the album, and getting a huge response from her. According to Fairchild, this friend (who works for a management company, Westbrook says) had “big crocodile tears” in her eyes when she heard “Rich Man.” That moment encouraged Westbrook to take his well-loved song off the bench.
And yet another standout song on the album, “God Fearing Gypsies,” was written by Fairchild, Nicolette Hayford, and Ashley Ray. Hayford had sent Fairchild the chorus of the song, and Fairchild immediately recognized the song’s potential. “I couldn’t text back fast enough,” Fairchild said.
“You were like, ‘Don’t call anybody else!’” Schlapman said of that conversation between Fairchild and Hayford.
Other must-listen songs on Mr. Sun are the clever “Song Back” and “Hell Yeah.” Overall, though, this album is a sonic snapshot of our collective experiences. “We celebrate, we grieve, we’re reckless, we grow, we’re grateful,” Schlapman summarizes.
“There are moments when you feel hopeless, but yet, there is a moment when the sun shines on it, right?” Sweet says to a chorus of head nods from his bandmates.
And now, with their sunniest album out and a milestone reached, Little Big Town is packing up their show to go on the road. They’re headed out to make special appearances on The Judds: The Final Tour. On those select dates, Little Big Town will sing alongside Wynonna as she honors her mother all these years after Fairchild and Schlapman danced to The Judds in a dorm hallway.
Listen to Mr. Sun HERE.
Photo Credit: Blair Getz Mezibov/Universal Music Group