The path to Little Big Town's sophomore album, "The Road to Here," was not exactly straightforward.
For starters, they did not have to worry very much about falling victim to the sophomore slump because the group's major label debut did not leave them much to live up to. Not only did the album not do very well, but it apparently was not what they wanted musically either.
That was not all the two male, two female quartet contended with.
Divorce struck the group with Karen Fairchild and Phillip Sweet splitting with their spouses.
And death also afflicted Little Big Town. Jimi Westbrook lost his father. And most tragically Kimberly Roads' husband, Steven, who was instrumental in getting the group going, died in April of a heart attack at 41.
Despite their woes, Little Big Town forged ahead to not only make an album that received positive reviews with a different sound than the debut, but they even have enjoyed a strong ride on the charts with the single, "Boondocks," on a new label, Clint Black's Equity.
"I think when we finished the last record and came out of that record deal, we weren't completely satisfied with the sound of the record," says Fairchild via cell phone from an arena in Richmond, Va., where they would open that night for Keith Urban. "We knew that part of it reflected us truly, but part of it didn't. We kind of got focused and said look what would we change? And how are we going to redefine the sound?...It wasn't exactly what we wanted. We need to dive in with someone who gets us and get it right. So we took off and got writing with our good friend (and album producer) Wayne Kirkpatrick."
Little Big Town's self-titled 2002 debut "wasn't an absolute true reflection of us," says Fairchild. "At the end of it, was that us? You can hear...pieces of it. I can see where they wanted to go or if they had this opportunity would they would evolve into. But things happen for a reason."
The problem with the 2002 debut was "we go into the studio, and we're a new artist on a big label. We're trying to voice our opinion, and you're trying to also listen to people that have a lot of knowledge in this business. There is no one to blame or nothing to blame. Things just happen. And bands evolve. I think through the whole process of these record deals, we've really been able to define who we are."
Westbrook says, "Things can sometimes be compromised...It was a little watered down."
The debut resulted in a few singles being released - "Don't Waste My Time" and "Everything Changes" - but neither exactly shot up the charts.
Kirkpatrick, best known for co-writing Eric Clapton's "Change the World," wrote the lead-off song on the debut, "Pontiac." He believed in LBT and paid for recording more music.
"It was kind of out of necessity," says Westbrook. "If we hadn't had Wayne Kirkpatrick, we wouldn't have been able to cut anything. We were really broke."
"Luckily, Equity formed their label, and they loved it (the album)," says Fairchild. "We were frightened at some point at not ever getting it out there."
Equity was formed by Black and music veterans after parting ways with RCA.
Westbrook says the new album "kind of evolved and came out as it supposed to. It was almost as if there was grouping of songs that came together at different times."
The album actually was about three years in the making. While the debut was too glossy, slick sounding and had pop overtones, "The Road to Here" is acoustic-based with lots of harmony singing and a much more country approach.
For Westbrook, the album reflects "a lot of things that we were going through and we were just expressing through the music. That's what I love about the record. It rally kind of tells the story of our journey, and it happened the way it supposed to."
"Boondocks," the hit single, was penned about three years ago, according to Westbrook. "That's what began this process," he says. "It started quite awhile back."
The song describes the small-town life, something the quartet can vouch for.
A funny thing happened on the way to recording "Boondocks."
"The first version of 'Boondocks' was actually 'Waiting for the Sun to Go Down,'" says Fairchild, referring to a line in their song "Bones." "When we wrote it, it just wasn't there. We kept looking at each other - the five us. The music is cool, (but) there's something not right. We kind of set it aside for a few days and then Wayne came back."
"We talked about writing a southern anthem, about where we are from, where we grew up...We set it aside, the melody and the music."
Kirkpatrick suggested the line "what about 'I'm born and raised in the boondocks'."
Westbrook says, "Then he sang it over that riff, and we were like 'that's it'."
The result was not only did LBT have "Boondocks" but also the song "Bones" about skeletons in the close. "We just wrote a completely different song," says Fairchild.
Westbrook says he was confident about the song. "I know as soon as we recorded that song that ere was something special about it. It just lit everybody up. We were locked in the studio...We started calling our management team, and it just really lit everybody up. There was definitely something to the song."
"We really believed in it," says Fairchild of the song. "Of course, we've been through some disappointing things. It's hard not to guard your heart. You're afraid of putting out your soul again and getting stomped on. You just have to go with it. It's so nice, so rewarding that people, fans are digging the song and seem to really identify with (it). It's turned into this validation song...You can see people (when we sing) 'this is me/this is who I am', they're standing up in the crowd and holding up their beers to us. 'That's me man. I get it'. It's just great."
"I think we feel - I don't know if it's justified - I think we feel affirmed ...that our gut feeling is right. If everybody hadn't accepted this record, at night, we could have gone to bed peaceful, saying hey we did it this time. We know this is finally a reflection of who we are. We could have been okay with it, but it sure is a lot easier to be ok with it, and everybody likes it."
Perhaps the saddest song on the album is "Lost," especially given the death of Roads' husband, Steven, this past April.
A lawyer, he was very involved in helping out the band on the business side, negotiating contracts.
The song "was actually an idea that our producer just had," says Westbrook. "I think he actually had the idea before the tragedy that Kimberly and the rest of us suffered along with her. He had that idea before, but it definitely changed after Steve passed away."
"I think that's a song that anybody who has lost whether it be lost love or a relationship or the death of someone close to you can identify with. That's definitely a moment of truth on the record for us."
"It was a painful experience, the writing of the song, the recording of it. There were tears shed, and I think you can probably feel that in the track."
Little Big Town has yet to perform the song in concert, but that could change depending on Roads.
Steven Roads' death did not cause his widow to reconsider her music career, according to Westbrook.
"I think she felt he would want her to continue. It's probably a healing thing, getting out and working as well and continuing on. She's a tough girl man. She's really strong. She dove back in as soon as she could. We've been going hard ever since."
Fairchild says when Roads "needs time, we try to give that to her whenever she needs it...She's the strongest girl that I know. She's had a really tough tough year. She loved him very much...This was their dream too. He was a supporter of the band. We always feel now we have a guardian angel watching out for us. That's the way she looks at it too. It's really been a blessing just these little surprises of the album selling well and the single doing well. We kind of laugh and smile about how he must be watching over us."
Fairchild, an Indiana native, who grew up in Georgia, met Roads at Samford College in Alabama where both were into singing.
Fairchild moved first to Nashville in 1994 followed by Roads in 1995. The two joined forces again and talked about trying something different in country music - two men and two women in the band.
Arkansas native Sweet began performing at an early age, singing in a church touring musical group at 10 and becoming professional at 15 by singing the songs of Clint Black, Steve Wariner and others in his mother's weekend country variety show. He moved to Nashville in 1997. Sweet hooked up with the others through a fellow performer.
Fairchild knew Westbrook, an Alabama native, from being on the corporate entertainment circuit. After spending time in college and as a salesman, he left for Nashville and the fledgling group in 1998.
Without ever having even played lived, Little Big Town secured a record contract from Mercury, but after recording four songs over eight months, the deal was history.
Interestingly enough, the first gig ever was at the Grand Ole Opry due to a late cancellation of another act. "Our agent called us and said, 'there's an opening. Do you want to take it?'" Westbrook says.
"We had not sung out in a club or anything until we sang at the Opry," says Fairchild. "Kind of crazy."
The road remained difficult as a second deal fell through, and their producer left as well. They landed at Sony in 2001.
After that went sour, Westbrook parked cars, Sweet became a telemarketer, Fairchild worked on Music Row doing office work.
LBT got material together, considering their next move.
"We were thinking it was riskier to for us to sign another major label deal," says Fairchild. "We felt like a small focused team was exactly what we needed. They just believed (in us). We pitched the music to some other folks in town. For various reasons, maybe they weren't interested or they felt we had too much baggage (from the first record). That's risky to try on a band that already had something out that didn't work. I understand that."
"There were definitely moments like let's say a year and a half after we cut 'Boondocks' where we were getting frustrated," says Fairchild. "where we had almost a full record done, like maybe eight or nine tracks and going 'Oh come on. Why can't we get this music out to the people?'"
"We kept going and kept believing. We felt we'd get this music out somehow. If we didn't get a deal, we'd put it out on the Internet or come up with our own independent label. We were pretty focused on sharing the music."
"The timing ended up being great for us," said Fairchild of the long process.
For Little Big Town, "The Road to Here" may not have been smoothly paved, but band members clearly are jazzed by the end result.
"Oh my gosh, we could be not more happy," says Fairchild. "We're out here with Keith Urban. The record's selling well, and the single's doing well...We keep pinching ourselves (and thinking) how did we get there."
"'The Road to Here' is who we are musically, and that's a really satisfying feeling."