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The song that changed Little Big Town's Life

Jim Colyer

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Article http://www.littlebigtown.com/story/news/chicago-tribune-arrived-courtesy-of-a-boat-sort-of
Pontoon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0O0nzkESTI

The song that changed Little Big Town's life wasn't really much of anything, just a tiny little slip of a thing, "a silly song about a boat," is how singer Karen Fairchild puts it, that turned into a monster.

Little Big Town had been together for fourteen years when "Pontoon," a goofy Jello shot of a song, landed in 2012, and they soon discovered that the difference between being a well-respected veteran act with a handful of decent-sized hits and being a well-respected veteran act with a crossover No. 1 summer smash was all the difference in the world.

The quartet's members, all of whom are also lead vocalists, have been friends forever, and are hopelessly intertwined in just about every way possible: Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman have been friends since college; Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook are married. They no longer tour together in one bus ("thank the Lord," says Fairchild), but the members of Little Big Town are famously tight.

Having their first No. 1 hit didn't change them much as a band, but "it makes us happy, I can tell you that," says Fairchild, on a day off from the band's tour with Keith Urban (they play the United Center on Friday). "You have to love all the music you make the same. They're all your babies. But when one of them gets so much attention and love and takes your career to a whole new level, it's so exciting. It brings us so much joy, and so many opportunities. That's been the biggest surprise of all."

The members of Little Big Town didn't write "Pontoon," but they knew a careermaker when they heard one, and in the days before the song was released, the air around them felt different. "Pontoon" might not elevate them to the ranks of Urbans, Chesneys and Swifts, the thinking went, but if it didn't, nothing would.

"I think on some songs you know, you know? But you still don't know," is the best way Fairchild can explain it. "When we heard 'Pontoon,' we went in the studio and cut it first on purpose, because we knew it was gonna lead the record. But if you could figure out (how to have a hit), you would do it over and over. You can have a gut feeling, and we did, that if we could get country radio to play it, it would be a big moment."

"Pontoon" was released in April 2012, but it wasn't until the band's performance at CMT awards in June (they performed in an actual boat that had been brought onstage) that the song began to make an impact. "We knew that was going to be a pivotal performance, that it was gonna punch that song to a different level, or it wasn't," Fairchild remembers. "Looking out at our artist friends (in the audience) standing up and starting to sing, I though, Gosh, this song could really be something. The next morning, we got some great feedback and it kind of snowballed. It really started for us that night."

By the time "Pontoon" exploded, the band had been together since the late '90s, their story one of almost textbook Nashville hardships: death (Schlapman's husband), divorces (band member Phillip Sweet's, and Fairchild's first marriage), failed label deals and humiliating day jobs.

By the time "Tornado," the band's fifth studio disc and the birthplace of "Pontoon," was released, Little Big Town had earned a comfortable berth as one of country music's more reliable makers of modest hits, their albums solid mixes of bluegrass harmonies and poppy melodies, "though we do love things that have a little bit of grit and swampiness, that feel a little raw and dirty as well."

It took almost a decade and a half for the band to land its first truly outsized hit, but Fairchild feels lucky merely to have survived that long. Having their first blockbuster mid-career means "it's sweeter now," she says. "There's a lot to navigate as a new artist … knowing whose advice you should take and whose you should not take. How can you know the scope of it? You can make a decision that dictates that you only get to make one record or a couple of singles, maybe you make a wrong choice on a song. It's just sad to think that someone who has a gift to share, that it can be over so quickly."

"Tornado" seems to have an infinite number of potential singles, including "Your Side of the Bed," a mournful and intimate song about the dissolution of a relationship, sung George-and-Tammy-style by Fairchild and Westbrook. Because the more famous Little Big Town gets the more fans feel as if they personally know the band's members, the song has caused no end of concern. "Some of the fans are like, 'Is this song about y'all?'" Fairchild says. "We didn't write it from our perspective. It's funny, in the live show they'll yell, 'Kiss her! Kiss her!' It's like they get worried."

Little Big Town are already "headlong into the process" of making a new album, though they must first finish the winter leg of their tour with Urban, with whom the band has toured and collaborated for years. "We went on the first arena tour Keith ever did," Fairchild says. "It was a real exciting time. He's got such a beautiful family and we love his crew and his band." The group sometimes hangs out with Urban and wife Nicole Kidman, Fairchild says, though they mostly run into each other backstage at catering. That Little Big Town may be headlining arenas themselves next time isn't lost on them, but they're trying not to think about it too much. "We know how to appreciate (things), and we know how hard we've worked to get here," says Fairchild. "We try to really soak it in and be in the moment, because it might not always be here."

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