Little Big Town is unafraid to ask the hard questions. In fact, the band doesn’t even flinch. “I’m just looking for a God for the daughters,” band member Karen Fairchild pleads on the Grammy-nominated lead-in, “The Daughters.” While not an official radio single, the somber prayer is an appeal for everyone to take accountability in their role, one of either knowing complicity or radio silence, in allowing a system to continue tearing women down.
“Watching at shows, we can see girls from the back of the crowd get up and wave at us like, ‘This was for me.’ We’ve been watching men respond, too, knowing they’ve got a responsibility in this dialogue,” Fairchild tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “They can be just as effective in this conversation. It’s a conversation we should still be having. It’s very frustrating, and it feels tired. But it angers me when people say, ‘We have to stop talking about this.’ No, we don’t, because until we see some changes – and yes, we’ve come a long way – but we still have a long way to go.”
“The Daughters,” which Fairchild co-wrote with Sean McConnell (Brett Young, Martina McBride) and Ashley Ray (Caroline Spence, Charles Kelley), sets the tone for the band’s most cohesive and thematically-engaging record of their career. Nightfall, releasing January 17, is their first predominantly self-produced album, a considerable achievement even given their superstar status. Dark and light, joy and anger, bliss and angst – all these dichotomies intertwine and splinter apart – and the songwriting stands as among their best to-date.
“Self-producing was a lot more different than we realized,” Jimi Westbrook laughs.
“This was completely taking the reins,” stresses Fairchild,” and if we co-produced with someone, it was out of finishing writing a song or a natural progression of completing a thought or an idea. I have a lot of respect for producers who do that and that’s all they do. That is a creative outpouring of yourself that is endless, and it doesn’t stop until you finally get it mastered and mixed. It’s very satisfying to listen to this record top to bottom and know it took so many hours, work, and thought.”
In such an inspired hyperdrive, a double-record of 34 songs nearly emerged. “We loved so many songs. It was a really great creative period, especially to get with people we’d never written with and to try new things in the songwriting. A lot of new relationships formed in that way. We were feeling really inspired, and we were blessed.”
“Whittling down to this record was agonizing at some points,” he quickly adds.
“I’ve always said that songwriting just gets harder and harder to me. I think it’s because we’re getting better at it. You just want to do Lori McKenna everyday,” chuckles Fairchild. Such pressure only opened them up even more to strike upon new ground. She continues, “Some people like to do the same thing a lot, and we don’t. It was fun to take that challenge. It was hard but very rewarding.”
A co-write with McConnell and Tofer Brown (Lady Antebellum, Jillian Jacqueline), “Problem Child” buckles beneath the weight of the world, directed by an outstanding, passionate Westbrook performance, and extends a compassionate hate to the outliers of society. “We see so many people these days who just feel like they’re outsiders and don’t fit in,” says Westbrook. “There’s a lot of language thrown at people to make them feel like they don’t fit in. We want to be people and voices that uplift people and give them hope.”
“Did someone not love you? Were you not enough? Did you not belong in their eyes? Why don’t you fit in? Why don’t you add up?”Westbrook mulls over these questions on the bridge. They are sifting through ashy rubble as much as they are probing their own minds, wrestling with hate-mongering that’s reached new heights in the digital space.
“It’s time for us to flip the dialogue, and we can’t do it if we don’t speak up. We’re not going to see changes happen,” points Fairchild. “[This song] is looking at the kid who sits at home and doesn’t understand why he feels the way he does. We see so much trouble and heartache. I think Sean had the idea, and I was just blown away by that concept, and we then took off writing it.”
That particular writing session birthed three songs, and by the last one, “we finally had to take a breather from all the heaviness,” she says. The song in question is “Wine Beer Whiskey,” a funky little Mariachi tune featuring brassy horn blasts and written 30 minutes later.
“It started off as a joke,” admits Fairchild.
“There was a lot of discussion about where that goes and does it fit. The thing about the band is we do like to talk about things that are important, but we also try not to take ourselves too seriously,” she says. “If we don’t show the lighthearted spirit of the band that just likes to have a good time, then we wouldn’t be fully showing our personalities. That’s the privilege of making a record. You can do what you want and let people go on the journey with you. This song was just part of it.”
The horns, played by Jacob Bryant of The Brummies, “started off as simply a mouth trumpet,” giggles Westbrook. “That was in-between as we were singing – doing a mouth trumpet. We thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ When we were in the studio, we explored actually putting real trumpets.”
The moment of levity lands right before “Questions,” a song Fairchild penned alongside Jon Green (Kane Brown, James Bay), and Sara Haze (Hunter Hayes, Terri Clark). “I’ve got questions with no intention of ever saying them outloud,” she sings. Her confessions, racking her brain for what could have been and if things are still the same (“Is the back porch still broke?” she ponders), are a mode of catharsis.
“We were talking about the things when you say goodbye to someone, a love, in your life, you don’t always get resolve. You have questions you’d like to ask, but nobody really says them out loud,” she says of the song, which Green also helped co-produce. “The song’s intention was to have that one-on-one conversation with yourself and the things you’d want to ask them – do you ever think about me? Do you still go to the bar we used to go to all the time?”
Each emotional piece is framed around lush, but never overwrought, production. “Forever and a Night,” co-written by Fairchild, Westbrook, Phillip Sweet, and acclaimed musician/singer-songwriter Foy Vance, features stark piano and an alluring smolder. “What a magical human being Foy is! I love that guy,” beams Westbrook. “Talking about a positive force, he’s just that.”
Not previously acquainted, the session began as most do, but there was “an instant rapport with him,” he recalls. “We all felt a kindred spirit with him. We cut that song that day, and from then on, we’ve been in love with Foy. It’s pretty much the same arrangement we did when we wrote it. I love the sentiment. Sometimes, you have to bring it back down to the basics in a relationship.”
Nightfall barrels through such emotions as sadness, anger, and loneliness, but the story reaches a moment of sharp clarity and relief with the penultimate track, “Bluebird.” Fairchild wrote with creative team Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, both recently earning Grammy Awards for co-producing Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, and there is both a yearning and blissful energy oozing at the seams.
“I think Daniel was giving me a free therapy session when I showed up that morning,” remembers Fairchild. “I love Daniel and Ian so much. Daniel was making me tomato soup for lunch, and he handed me a piece of paper and wanted me to write down anything that I loved and fill the paper full of things. I started writing anything.”
“We still talk about that piece of paper all the time,” she says.
“Bluebird” tugs the listener into a plaintive, yet joyful, headspace – acoustic guitar pulling you in and Fairchild’s serene vocal keeping you there. “You’ve been crying / Set your sorrows on that bluebird’s wings / And when she sings / Nothing’s gonna take my love away / Keep it in your heart for a rainy day,” she sings, wiping away the tears.
“That set the tone for the day that we’d write something so sweet. It’s the perfect answer in the sequence to ‘Problem Child,’” she notes. “It’s the joy that you get when you do come out of the rain or a dark situation. There is hope and peace on the other side.”
“Daniel, Ian, and I were also talking about things you’d want to say to our children. I was really proud of that song, and I wasn’t sure the band would be into it,” she says. “I didn’t know if it was going to be too sweet and moody. But they loved it. Daniel and Ian made the most stunning track.”
Westbrook chimes in, “I love that song so much. It’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever cut. There is a quiet joy in it. We need more songs like that in the world.”
In 2017’s Billboard cover story, promoting The Breaker, the conversation centered on healing and a desire to mend. Nightfall is a natural extension, feeling even more urgent given the continued sociopolitical battle. “That’s an interesting observation,” Fairchild stops a moment. “It’s probably because of what’s going on in the world and the divisiveness that we see. The fact we’re parents, we see the way negativity and social media seeps into people’s lives. It’s coming from a different place in our lives but just as relevant and important.”
Essential moments like “Sugar Coat,” “Problem Child” and “The Daughters” were provoked out of deep personal conversations, as the band weighed family, love of each other, and growing unease in the world. “As we all were looking at each other and figuring out which direction we were going, and as we were getting into writers’ rooms with people, we felt like we wanted to say some things that mattered and spoke to situations we were seeing,” offers Westbrook. “We were talking about things in life and wanted to speak positives into the world. We’re definitely aware of the culture of negativity that seems to be prevalent in so many things and wanting our children to see through that.”
Strong messages of hope and empathy are woven into organic arrangements and production that is enveloping and always intimate. “There were a couple of different threads going through a lot of the stuff we were writing, and it ended up us just trying to come down to which songs fit together in a package the best,” says Westbrook. “We could have gone in other directions, but I feel like – hopefully – these songs were the ones that fit together the best.”
“I think [the album] feels cohesive because we were able to say, ‘This is going to go here, and this should go there. We should have levity right here….’ We were able to really manipulate that process and see what the record needed to feel and sound like,” says Fairchild.
“In recent years, we’ve been hearing a lot of commentary from country artists on what’s going on in the world, but we couldn’t help ourselves this time.”