When Little Big Town made its fairly understated debut in 2002, few would have predicted the level of success that has since unfolded, let alone the organic way it’s come about, for members Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook. Perhaps the foursome’s gradual career growth has been its biggest advantage―it took the harmony-singing quartet three years to begin touching a toe into Top 10 waters, and a full decade as a working country act before reaching the destination of a No. 1 hit.
During those years, the group steadily put roots into the soil, eventually depositing seeds that have since blossomed into a signature style (though an uncommonly malleable one) with memorable songs ranging from the rural-themed “Boondocks” to the irresistibly good-natured “Pontoon” and on to last year’s crossover breakthrough hit, “Girl Crush,” the first of LBT’s singles to break the Top 20 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart.
With the foundation of nearly 15 years underneath them and the vital strengths of their own self-contained community to sustain them, the members of Little Big Town have weathered the storms of industry change over the last decade-plus and emerged with a firm grasp on who they are both as individuals and as a group. This security of identity has allowed for an unforced expansion of LBT’s stylistic borders over time. Wisely, though, the group has evolved its sound as naturally and gradually as the way in which its career became established.
Little Big Town’s new eight-song album, “Wanderlust,” a collaboration with R&B/pop phenomenon Pharrell Williams, is likely to strike longtime listeners as the group’s most radical left turn to date. It’s a departure, all right, but once you get past the initial double-take of LBT-as-R&B, it’s not that difficult to recognize the quartet’s core elements and inviting spirit in the new tracks, nor is it tricky to trace the steps they took to get there.
LBT has increasingly taken advantage of Karen Fairchild’s dark tonalities, which in turn have informed the shift to a more sultry sound in songs such as “Girl Crush” and the Miranda Lambert/LBT collaboration “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” (which snared the 2015 ACM award for Vocal Event of the Year). Viewed in that light, Fairchild’s spot-on Annie Lennox emulation on “One Dance” is a logical extension, though the track itself, a sparsely produced 21st-century update of the Eurythmics’ chilly-sounding pop, is the album’s most uncharacteristic offering.
The reggae flavor hinted at in previous hits “Pontoon” and “Day Drinkin'” finds fuller expression in the weighty, Bob Marley-esque “Work” and the buoyant “Skinny Dippin’,” custom-made for a mashup with “Pain Killer,” the Jamaican-inflected title track from the group’s most recent country album. “Dippin'” isn’t the only track here that skews sexy; this, too, is indicative of LBT’s subtle move toward more permissive themes, though done within appropriate adult contexts and the confines of comparatively good taste.
Pharrell Williams’ influence, dovetailing easily with LBT’s similarly optimistic worldview, is most apparent on the spiritual-leaning “Miracle” as well as on the lead-off single, “One of Those Days.” Carrying an uplifting lyric coupled with the kind of insistent earworm quality that will keep it amiably looping in the subconscious, it taps the essence of Williams’ record-breaking crossover hit, “Happy,” an R&B song with proven appeal to listeners who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre.
Likewise, what Williams and Little Big Town have accomplished on “Wanderlust” is the creation of hooky, upbeat songs that are likeable in their own right, outside of stylistic considerations. Little Big Town is currently working on a country album to satisfy its core audience, so no outraged cries of “crossover sellout!” need be voiced. But this detour, however well aligned with the group’s present trajectory, confirms the group’s intention to make room for music lovers of other stripes―and, to that end, that the boundaries of LBT’s little town have indeed grown bigger.