Janis Fontaine

Little Big Town shakes up its formula
and finds new album, single parked at No. 1

By Janis Fontaine, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Nothing about Little Big Town was broken. Nothing needed fixing. They had hit singles and award nominations and industry respect.

But you can’t become superstars resting on your laurels.

“We wanted to push ourselves creatively and needed some different inspiration, a different approach,” Phillip Sweet said by phone from Nashville. “It was a healthy thing.”

The singers — Sweet, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman and Jimi Westbrook — hooked up with producer Jay Joyce to make their fifth studio album, “Tornado,” released Sept. 11. The album has spent five weeks at No. 1 and the debut single about motor-boating, “Pontoon,” became LBT’s first No. 1 song.

“We’ve gotten really close before but never quite to the top,” Sweet said. “The song is silly and fun and it makes you smile. That’s the appeal of it.”

With “Pontoon” on the set list, Cruzan Amphitheatre will be full of smiling fans when LBT opens for super-group Rascal Flatts on Saturday (see an interview with Joe Don Rooney in today’s TGIF). Fans may hear a few new songs, but they’re still the same harmony-driven band that made “Little White Church” and “Boondocks.” “The harmonies will always be a part of what we do,” Sweet said.

But in making “Tornado,” instead of meticulously polishing each singer’s part, Joyce urged them to play it loose.

“We came in together for three nights and tracked the songs, just played and sang, all of us at the same time. This time it was ‘don’t think about it, just sing it and see what comes out.’”

What came out was an incredible mix of songs. From the solid kick of the party anthem “Where the Pavement Ends” to the tender, sweet closing notes of “Night Owl,” the album has a kind of cohesion to it. They even used the rehearsal on the record if that was the strongest performance, Sweet said.

“”Front Porch Thing” was one of those and the energy was just right. This record does have a different sonic quality to it that I can attribute to working with Jay Joyce, but also our road band that we brought in and played with on the record.

“We just wanted to capture the moment. There is an intangible energy that happens when everyone is going for it, full-blown.”

Just listen to Joyce counting down at the beginning of “Self-Made,” the rock song on the album. You’ll hear him yell “Get it, Johnny” to guitarist Johnny Duke, and Duke responds with a raunchy guitar lick.

“We wanted to shake it up and capture a little bit of what we do on the road. We have a fantastic band and when we all perform together live like that, everyone brings a little bit extra. It ups everybody’s game,” Sweet said.

And what a game. Some performers might worry if after 13 years they still haven’t achieved the pinnacle of success. Not LBT.“Sometimes I feel like we’re just getting started, like we’re just scratching the surface of what we want to do. It’s amazing; 13 years goes by like that,” Sweet said, snapping his fingers. “We’re just digging deeper and we’re finding fresh inspiration. For us, it’s always about looking forward and growing.”