Little Big Town Explores New Horizons in Harmony and Production

Philip Sweet, Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild record tracks for Pontoon.
Photo credit: Weston Heflin

One great singer is a producer’s delight. When George Jones, Tony Bennett or Andrea Bocelli is behind the microphone, the possibilities for one-of-a-kind bursts of inspiration are what spark the studio maven’s imagination.
Does this mean that when you gather four terrific singers, the opportunities for such moments quadruple? Not exactly, but it does tweak the dynamic in an intriguing way. Group vocals reach out differently, in blends made smoother by toning down individual idiosyncrasies. Even where one member takes the spotlight for a chorus, the group is fundamentally, well, a group.

To producers with a particular sensitivity to sonic nuance, this suggests a different set of possibilities than a single voice on its own — possibilities related to texture and timbre, similar to working with strings or synth pads. Jay Joyce is that type of a producer. With Cage the Elephant and Patty Griffin as well as Country artists Eric Church, Emmylou Harris, Jack Ingram and Ashley Ray, his trademark has been to frame the performer in vivid and often surprising colors. It sounds on paper like a perfect match for Little Big Town, whose versatility, precision, emotional expression and shimmering harmonic presentation seem ideal for this type of treatment.

It sounds that way on disc too. The meeting of Little Big Town and Jay Joyce on Tornado, released Sept. 11, delivers on its promise of mutually inspired creativity. Working together, artists and producer have come up with a milestone, each casting the other in a new light and bringing forth something unlike anything either has produced before.

“We just knew that we needed to do something new,” explained Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. “We’ve had great success with our longtime producer and friend, Wayne Kirkpatrick. But even in discussions with Wayne, it was like, ‘How do we continue to inspire each other?’ You do find new ways of doing it with a longtime collaboration, but we felt like we needed a fresh perspective in a way. We had a great, open, honest dialogue with Wayne. He could not have been more supportive. That’s just the kind of person he is.”

With his blessing, the band — Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook — reached out to Joyce. They’d already met him when he laid down some guitar tracks on their 2010 album, The Reason Why, so when they invited him over to dinner, everyone showed up eager to trade ideas.

“He respected what we had done in the past and he knew we didn’t want to completely leave that behind,” Fairchild recalled. “But he also said, ‘You know what? I think I can make a new record on you guys — something different. I’ve got some ideas about the way we’re going to record your voices.’ And that’s what we wanted to hear.”

“I really like the classic vocal bands — that ‘70s/Eagles/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young kind of thing,” said Joyce, who has been nominated for three CMA Awards this year – Album of the Year for Tornado and Single of the Year for “Pontoon” and Eric Church’s “Springsteen.” “I thought that if we spent enough time in pre-production, they’d know what to do and we could go in and nail it. So we worked really hard in pre-production. We even got a couple of players to come in and rehearse — I don’t know why that’s so unusual here in Nashville, but pre-production is pretty key especially with vocal bands because you can constantly change singers and keys. The options are endless.”

Those options stretched beyond replicating old-school vocal styles — though on “Can’t Go Back” (written by Natalie Hemby, Kate York and Rosi Golan), for example, the voicings sung and doubled by Little Big Town do clearly evoke the classic CS&N sound circa “Helplessly Hoping.” “We did a lot of bouncing. We did duets. We did a lot of things they never did,” Joyce noted. “The guys would sing a line and the girls would sing the harmony, as opposed to everybody going at once. We experimented with a lot of old-school effects. I even had them get inside an echo chamber when they sang some of the parts of ‘Night Owl.’ And that’s Kimberly inside the echo chamber at the end of ‘Tornado.’”

That vintage echo chamber at Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios was just one resource employed by Little Big Town and Joyce. Special attention was paid to the drums. “Jay was very particular about cymbals getting in the way of the vocals,” Fairchild reported. “He wanted a clean pathway, but the foundation underneath should be heavyweight and full. That’s the kind of record that Jay makes anyway, but that’s also what we were looking for.”

“When you have four main vocalists, that’s a lot of real estate in the two-speaker area,” Joyce added. “A lot of times, people cram the vocals on top, so my idea was to carve out that niche right from the beginning. It might feel a little strange and empty at first, but once we put the vocal right there, they didn’t have anything to fight with. They can live without competing against anything else in the mix.”

Using the drums more sparely also allows them to speak with a greater presence. They underscore the space and intimacy of “Sober” (written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna). The ominous imagery of “Tornado” (Hemby and Delta Maid) is lit by a snare backbeat that cracks like lightning and anchored on the downbeats by a kick drum that stalks like footsteps in the dark. And the four-beat rhythm on the verses of “On Fire Tonight” (Luke Laird and Little Big Town) ignites a sizzling, Sly Stone-like party groove.

But rules are made to be broken too. On one track, “Self Made,” the formula is reversed during choruses, where the voices are buried within a thunder of drums, washes of cymbal and squalling electric guitars. Powerful on its own, “Self Made” packs an even bigger punch through its contrast with the rest of Tornado.

“‘Self Made’ is a really special song,” Fairchild said. “Jimi and I were writing with Natalie Hemby. She played us this thing that she and Jedd Hughes had started, called ‘Self Made.‘ We knew the band would flip out over that lyric. It’s not just our story, it’s the story of every working man and woman in this country that has to try to do something for themselves the hard way. It’s about perseverance and believing and looking ahead.

“When we went in to track this song, we saved it for the end. It was like the culmination of all the work we’d done,” she continued. “Jay was literally standing on top of the B-3 (Hammond organ) in the middle of the room, almost conducting and inspiring us to give more. It was something I’ll never forget. I know you can feel it when you hear that song. We wanted it to be about that moment, and if you push the vocals too forward, you’re not going to feel the way everyone was playing. It felt like it should just sit inside that band moment because what everyone was doing was necessary.”

“A lot of Country Music vocals are shoved up front automatically,” Joyce added. “I like to hear what a vocalist is saying, but I also like the Rolling Stones. So it was intentional not to do the typical thing on ‘Self Made.’ With a rock song, if you’re going to jam four beautiful, big-sounding voices to the front, the song is not going to rock. No matter what you do, it’s going to sound like karaoke. To keep the rock feel, I balanced the vocals just above what I would do for a rock band.”

On this track in particular, that energy stemmed from how everyone configured in the studio. Little Big Town lined up as they do onstage, on individual microphones in a row. The musicians surrounded them, pushing the music into them from all directions. “We weren’t worried about bleed-over into the mics,” Fairchild insisted. “We worried about the energy of what we were doing. We even invited some of the writers to drop by because we wanted them to make us nervous. It ups the energy when someone walks into the room to listen as you track. We could see everybody; it felt very in the moment with them. Jay would go, ‘All right, let’s go. Bring your A-game. Sing!’ He’d count us in, and we were in the moment, bringing it.”

That was true on the album’s antithesis to “Self Made” too. The most delicate moments onTornado come at the end, with “Night Owl” (Hemby and Little Big Town). Accompanied by acoustic guitar, with vibraphone and electric guitar adding a glistening sheen, it presents the singers in an unusual configuration, the male and female voices answering each other in a dreamlike dialogue of imminent reunion. Listening, one hesitates even to breathe, for fear of disrupting its fragile, floating beauty.

Amazingly, it took just seven days for Little Big Town to track Tornado. After a short rest, they came back to listen with some perspective and tighten a few details. “Jay said, ‘You guys sing every night. You’re good singers. There’s no reason why you’re not just laying this down live in the studio all the way,’” Fairchild remembered. “I’m not saying we didn’t cut and paste some things together. But what you’re hearing is a moment in time of about seven days of rehearsing and then singing live at night, just as we would in a show: The boys have a shot of whiskey, we have a little glass of wine, and we’re off. We worked at a fast pace because we were so excited, we wanted not only our label and management to hear these songs; we were ready for the world to hear them. We’re ready now!”

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On Twitter: @LBTMusic


By Bob Doerschuk

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

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