“Wow, we've really made it," joked singer Karen Fairchild. The song, which they debuted at the Academy of Country Music Awards last April, features a chorus with the lyrics, “I’ve heard of God the son and God the father/I’m still looking for a God for the daughters.”
Some fans took offense, but Grammy voters nominated the track for best country duo/group performance — an award the band has won three times. Little Big Town will go up against songs by Brooks & Dunn featuring Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Maren Morris featuring Brandi Carlile and Brothers Osborne during the awards show in Los Angeles on Jan. 26.
“We got picketed one night at a concert,” said Fairchild, who co-wrote the song. “Somebody saying we were going to hell. I mean, you’re talking about four people who grew up with faith in the church.”
Singer Kimberly Schlapman had one response to the protester: “No, we’re not.” Fairchild, Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet have had some experience with generating a bit of controversy with their songs, but it’s worked out well for them in the long run.
When “Girl Crush” initially hit the airwaves at the end of 2014, a small number of fans thought the lyrics were about a same-sex relationship. That didn’t slow the momentum of the song, however, which became a multi-platinum, multi-week No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot country songs chart and went on to win two Grammy Awards and two CMA Awards.
For “The Daughters,” they felt certain that it would find an audience, even without sending it to country radio, because of the timely message about how women are objectified. “When Karen brought the song to us, I identified with every line, especially growing up in the South where those kinds of expectations are placed on young women,” said Schlapman.
“The Daughters” isn’t the only song with a message on their ninth studio album, “Nightfall,” to be released Friday. “Sugar Coat” examines the facades created to cover up fractures in a relationship, although those pearl-clutching listeners who were offended earlier might not like it when Fairchild sings the lyrics, “Go to hell.”
The orchestral string and piano ballad “Problem Child,” written by the foursome with co-writers Sean McConnell and Tofer Brown, is a call-out to lost and lonely children everywhere. “That’s another song that speaks to a lot of what we’re seeing in the world, especially with young people feeling disenfranchised and feeling like they are outsiders, like they don’t belong, that they’re alone in their struggle,” said Westbrook, who is married to Fairchild. “Having kids, that’s just an absolutely heartbreaking thought to me.”
After working for years with producer Jay Joyce, the group found themselves self-producing this time around and they take a light touch with instrumentation and production that lends the album an airy, dreamy and romantic feel.
“We’ve learned a lot about actually the space on the track being just as important as anything that’s going down,” said Fairchild. The album opener, “Next to You,” features all four singing in unison and their close harmonies blend and build to a crescendo of choral voices, reminiscent of Arcade Fire.
“Because we were in the (vocal) booth together, we’re seeing each other breathe so that the phrasing is connected,” Fairchild explained. They worked with some new co-writers including Daniel Tashian, best known for co-producing Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning “Golden Hour,” on the spacey and vibey title track, “Nightfall.” And the Northern Irish artist Foy Vance, who is signed to Ed Sheeran’s label, helped them write a gospel-soul-country track, “Forever and a Night,” in which Sweet takes the vocal lead.
But the singers of “Pontoon” and “Day Drinking” know how to have a party as well, and they serve up the drinks and jam out to trumpets and marching drums on “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” a reprieve from some of the moodier tracks on the record.
“The trumpets started off as mouth trumpets in the (writing) room that day, and we were really close to making it mouth trumpets (on the track,)” Westbrook said. “'Cause we think we’re really good at mouth trumpets,” added Schlapman.
The group kicks off their headlining tour Thursday at the Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall in New York City and continues through May.