The story of Little Big Town involved plenty of false starts, a lot of success and a long victory lap. The quartet are big enough to support Eagles on a Hyde Park date, play a headline slot at Country2Country and fill the Royal Albert Hall, thanks to evergreen hits like Pontoon, Girl Crush and Boondocks. Taylor Swift also gave them Better Man, her song about Calvin Harris, which is a weird Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
The youngest member of the quartet is 48-year-old Phillip, which puts the band in the sort of bracket as Legacy Artists whose days on country radio are over. This frees up their creativity since they aren’t chasing hits but are looking for songs to stick into a live setlist around the old faithful. Recently, for instance, they played a show which added Hell Yeah, a song that is the complete opposite of what you think it is: in spite of the whistling hook, narrator Phillip has been ‘going through hell, yeah’.
The band have produced this album themselves, which saves on costs when you’re paying a quartet, albeit one where two members, Jimi and Karen, are putting money into the same college fund for their kids. The formula works by now: the band get help from their friends to craft harmony-soaked Adult Contemporary pop songs which are imbued by living and working in the little big town of Nashville. Then they fit them into a live set around Boondocks, Girl Crush and Pontoon.
As is contractually obligatory by now, the Love Junkies (Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose but you know that) join the girls to work their magic on Three Whiskeys and the Truth and Something Strong. Both are heartbreak songs where drink numbs the pain, expertly communicated by Karen, and I wonder if a man in a suit would have only allowed one of these to make an LBT album ten years ago. It must be the case that the band are older than the suits these days, and all the better for it.
Dan Tashian returns to write the title track of this album, sung by Jimi and featuring all the magic chords Dan usually puts in his compositions to make it sounds like he wrote it in 1972 in Laurel Canyon. Fellow long-time traveller Sean McConnell gifts them One More Song, which opens with an image of packing boxes and ‘dancing around the hurt and the pain’. Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne bring their golden touch to the excoriating and sad Whiskey Colored Eyes (‘I guess I like the burn…I’ll let you get me high’).
Foy Vance, best known as a friend of Ed Sheeran’s and a favourite of many songwriters who appreciate the craft, was in the room for album closer Friends of Mine. Amid lyrics about storms and hardship, there is advice to ‘take courage’ in this crazy world. It’s almost country gospel, though the squealing guitars push it towards power ballad territory, and it would segue nicely into or from a song like Sober.
There are plenty of uptempo tracks here to balance out the ballads, any of which may fill the ‘Happy Tune’ slot in the band’s setlist if they want to retire Day Drinkin’, Wine Beer Whiskey or Stay All Night. There’s the singalong opening pair of All Summer and Better Love, the country disco duo of Song Back (sung by Karen) and Heaven Had A Dance Floor (with lead vocals from Kimberly) and the itchy, catchy Gold, written with the great Luke Dick. It brilliantly rhymes ‘sombrero/Cuervo’.
Jimi wrote the words and music for Rich Man (‘without a lick of money’), a song about God and family which seems obligatory on a country album. Last Day On Earth might well be sung a cappella, although the album version has some drums and guitars underscoring a tender love song (‘ashes to ashes, dust to dirt’) which actually reminds me of British duo Two Ways Home.
God Fearing Gypsies is all about time passing. It begins with ‘the golden days of being young in the summer are gone’, perfectly capturing the USP of Little Big Town. Different Without You is an outside write by Corey Crowder and Jordan Schmidt which they must have thought sounded like LBT when they got to the chorus.
Who knows which acts are going to sing this sort of tune after LBT have completed their farewell tour…