One From The Vault: Little Big Town

Third Coast Artists Agency: are you there? Your old office mate, Karen Fairchild, has done good.

“I used to work at the agency and, when Pollstar arrived, all the agents would sit and peruse through it and look at everybody’s numbers and talk about who’s on the cover,” Fairchild one-fourth of Little Big Town told the magazine. “So, all my agent buddies are going to see this article, and that’s going to be fun.”

Little Big Town is unusual in country music in many ways, and not just because of Fairchild’s background. A band is rare enough in a genre filled with solo artists. And what sets them apart from even that smallish group is four-part harmonies.

The harmonies are powerful too, ones that can fill up cavernous arenas. Comparisons to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac have been made. It’s no wonder Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Roads and Phillip Sweet have played on the same nights as Keith Urban, John Mellencamp, Kenny Chesney and, this fall, Alan Jackson.

Yet, even though the band has the chops for the big crowds, that’s traditionally not enough to land the premium support slots. Along with the talent, there’s usually some industry person working behind the scenes. Who was responsible for all of this love? Was it the agents at CAA, the band’s manager, or the headlining artists themselves?

Photo: Kristen Barlowe
The October 9, 2006, issue of Pollstar.

“We sit and wonder that sometimes,” Westbrook told Pollstar, laughing. “It’s like, ‘Wow, what are we doing here?’ But I think with John Mellencamp in particular, it was an agency-based thing. CAA took the music to Mellencamp (a fellow CAA client) before he went out. They played it for him and his people, and they loved it. It kind of happened pretty quickly.”

“Yeah,” Fairchild agreed. “You get a call from your managers and they say, ‘We’re going to pitch you on the John Mellencamp tour,’ and you say, ‘Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen. Wouldn’t that be cool.’ We wouldn’t even let ourselves go there.”

As for Urban, “Our manager had been talking to Keith’s manager,” according to Fairchild. “A lot of times those things happen as a team effort. You’ve got the label talking and putting in a good word, and then it’s our manager and then CAA really forging the way and taking the new music to Keith. We’ve known Keith through the years, but it was Keith’s agent, Darin Murphy, who sat Keith down and played him some of the new music.”

New music? Normally, that would be an odd thing to say for a so-called fledgling artist. However, like many Nashville acts, Little Big Town has a long history. The band has been around since 1999. The difference between now and then, though, is that back then Little Big Town sounded like crap.

That’s not Pollstar‘s opinion. It’s the opinion of practically every critic who heard the band’s debut on Sony’s Monument Records – a slick, commercialized affair that pleased no one, especially not the band. This debacle took place after a nine-month stint at Mercury that didn’t produce anything.

Photo: Kristen Barlowe
Phillip Sweet, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads, Jimi Westerbrook

Little Big Town went into a tailspin. One of the band’s managers, Rendy Lovelady, had been with them since the beginning, when it was only Fairchild and Roads contemplating a harmony group and seeking participants. CAA’s Risha Rodgers, Jeff Gregg and John Huie stood by the group too.

“We actually went to them during that lean period and said, ‘Hey, if you could just throw anything at us, anything that we can get gas money out of to get in front of people, then we’ll hop in the van and drive ourselves,'” Westbrook said. “They quickly began doing that and it kept us going. And there was definitely hunger at that time, too, for just getting out and doing what we love and that was part of the process to where we are now, too.”

Meanwhile, Lovelady and the band’s attorney started presenting Little Big Town’s new material to potential labels. It was like selling Amway.

“They’d ask who it was and she’d be like, ‘I don’t need to tell you who it is. Just listen to it,'” Fairchild said.

Meanwhile band members suffered divorces and the death of a spouse, but Little Big Town moved forward. They signed to Equity Records, with its artist-friendly revenue-sharing plan. President Mike Kraski was the GM of Sony when the band was on the roster.

Recently, the band was nominated for the CMA’s Horizon award, which recognizes creative growth, along with fellow nominees Sugarland, Miranda Lambert, Josh Turner and Carrie Underwood. Fairchild compared Little Big Town to Sugarland and Turner, both of which have been around a lot longer than people know. It may have been a long time to get to “new artist” recognition, but it still counts.

“Most people think we’re new,” she said. “The industry folks know the story, but the fans think we’re a new band. Hey, we don’t care.”

The band is lined up for some fair and festival dates in October before hitting some Florida and Louisiana arenas with Jackson in November.