This spring, Little Big Town made the leap from independent label Equity Music Group to continue their careers at one of Nashville’s remaining majors, Capitol Records. As the first order of business, Capitol is re-releasing the band’s release from last fall, A Place to Land on Tuesday. Although the album received rave reviews from national music critics, it barely squeaked into the top ten of Billboard’s country albums chart, and the first single, “I’m with the Band,” failed to make an impact at radio. The new version of A Place to Land is buoyed by a new single, “Fine Line,” and four new tracks, including the quartet’s collaboration with Sugarland and Jake Owen, “Life in a Northern Town.” Phillip Sweet of Little Big Town speaks to Country Universe about their topsy-turvy year and what fans can expect from the band as they re-join the ranks of major-label acts.
Re-releasing an album has become in vogue recently. What do the three new tracks add to the overall theme of A Place to Land?
When we first turned in A Place to Land, it was a solid, complete picture. Making the record was like a window in time. When we had this opportunity to put out some new songs, it was really a cool thing.
We were hearing the lyrics in a whole new way. It adds even more depth. We’ve lived a full life. Capitol Records (Little Big Town’s new record label) bought out the first two albums and gave us a chance to make some new music, and we were excited about that. We added a new song, “Love Profound,” that we wanted to record for a long time. It’s actually a song Wayne (Kirkpatrick, Little Big Town’s producer and songwriting collaborator) had written. It’s just a beautiful song. But all the new songs fit into what we do as a group.
After the success of The Road to Here, was there any change in how you approached A Place to Land?
We try not to stray too far from what we know. But still, we want to push ourselves and take some chances and get outside the box. It’d be easy to do “Boondocks 2”, but we never want to rest on that. We’re wanting people to be moved by the music. And we bring all this journey with us, and we’ve grown and we now have more maturity.
With Wayne Kirkpatrick you’ve found a compatible partner. What qualities does he bring to each recording?
He brings great balance. We’re four strong individuals, different individuals. We work well together, but he keeps the group’s collective ideas in focus. At the end of the day, he keeps us on track. He’s very brilliant. He brings a different musical perspective. We’ve been recording for ten years now, but he still gives us help in terms of the direction we’re taking.
It reminds me of talking with Patty Loveless about her husband Emory (Gordy, Jr.). Both him and Wayne seem like real music men-they can write, produce, play. They’re a jack-of-all-trades type.
Yeah. Wayne just brings this neat musical element, and he can do it all.
There’s a rich, deep quality of the music you make together.
The way we record is in a cool, old house, wood everywhere. It has a nice, warm ambience. That’s the vibe we want to focus on. We use reel-to-reel, 2-inch analog, and then we transfer to digital. We stick to the basics. We want to be fresh and innovative, but never mess it up too much. It’s very skeletal.
If it can sound good just with an acoustic guitar, then we’ve come up with something that’s worth it.
Of course, the one other addition to the re-release of A Place to Land is “Life in a Northern Town”, with Sugarland and Jake Owen.
It’s incredible. I was talking about it with Kristian (Bush) not long ago, and we still play that song anytime that we’re out with them and we get a great reaction from the crowd.
What was remarkable about that song is that, without marketing or publicity or a push to radio, it still managed to chart for twenty weeks.
If there’s any proof that the fans will show what they like, that song would be it. They will stick with great songs. And it just such a fun experience to share that with them.
It seems the major development in country music this decade has been the rise of the independent record label, but there’s been a shift lately in that movement, with a few prominent artists returning to the major label fold. What made the move to a major label, Capitol Records, the right one?
It’s tough in the music industry today to market to radio, shoot videos and all these added layers. We wanted to have the ability to get our music out there. Basically, our contract was up and we’d fulfilled our obligation. We were flattered by the labels that were interested. They (Capitol Records) were the perfect marriage. Their roster was not too big, and they focused on the artists like an independent label would. There’s a diversity of artists there. We just liked the spirit of what they were doing.
Touring with Carrie Underwood has introduced your music to a different audience. How has your latest touring experience with her and with other major country touring acts influenced your performing style?
I think you can learn something from everyone. It’s all about being unique and it’s very important to be yourself. You try to capture that one person in the audience. It’s not something you can teach. We just keep true to our music. It’s definitely opened up our experience.
I wish people could feel the energy. It keeps us doing it every day. It charges us up that people feel so much of the music. It’s a gift back to us. Especially with “Boondocks.” They (the fans) have taken ownership of that song. I wish people could feel that rush that we feel every night.
What’s the next step for Little Big Town in terms of maintaining a lasting career?
I just want this album to have a life. I feel like a lot of people will be hearing this album for the first time. We’re putting the same energy behind this as when it (the album) was first released. But just want to keep getting played on the radio, making the videos, doing the live performances and ensure we have this opportunities for a long time.
It’s a sweet time out here for us. We’ve got our families out here on the road most of the time. I have my wife and our little girl, and Kimberly has her little girl out here. But we keep on growing and developing our music. You know, there’s a song on A Place to Land called “Only What You Make of It,” and it’s about making the best of life, and that’s what we’re doing.
When I think about Little Big Town, I can’t help but think about my parents, especially my father. Your music recalls a time back in the ’70s when they were first being introduced to different varieties of music and all of these genres-country, rock, pop, the blues-co-existed on the radio. How do you blend these elements to build the right combination?
It’s not as clear-cut as it used to be. You’ve got a lot of different talent now. People aren’t afraid to like country. And with country you think of everything from the traditional to all the success Taylor Swift is having There’s great songwriting and great musicality across the genre. If it (our music) happens to catch on somewhere else, that’s great. But we don’t want to walk away from the country format. We want to stay true to the music.
And people don’t judge their music by genres.
The fans are going to find what they like. And we like a lot of different styles. People have the tools to do that now, with the internet, MySpace, iLike and everything else. There are just more ways to get the music you want to listen to.
I saw you at the Opry show last month, and there were so many types of country music represented, and your sound fit within that country mold.
We really enjoyed being on that show. I love Charlie Daniels. And Charlie Daniels, back in the ’70s, was being played a lot on rock stations. But you’re right, there were a lot of different styles there.
We’ve been together a long time. We’ve been at it for ten years now on this journey. But we still have the same energy to go at it as we did before. We’re encouraged by how people have reacted to the music. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.