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Little Big Town Are Country Music’s Wiliest Stars

The quartet’s latest album, ‘The Breaker,’ combines veteran savvy with rookie exuberance … and a little Taylor Swift

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There are days you can convince yourself that Tango in the Night is Fleetwood Mac’s best album. Sure, Rumours is way bigger, and Tusk way cooler. But there’s something about transplanting all that Southern Californian decadence, that incestuous personal intrigue, that gilded folk-pop sumptuousness to the Reagan era — 1987, to be exact. The age of lush synthesizers, percolating drum machines, Cinemaximal spandex prurience, giant shoulder pads, and elegant aerosol splendor. (Also: cocaine. Even more cocaine.) Get a load of this tropical-fever-dream album cover. Get a load of “Big Love,” and “Seven Wonders,” and “Little Lies.” In late March, you can buy a triple-disc Tango in the Night reissue for $75 and cloak yourself in all that gauzy DayGlo-sunset radiance anew. Or you could just listen to Little Big Town now.

Little Big Town are a coed country quartet — one married couple, one lady with majestic and leonine hair, and one other guy — who’ve inspired Fleetwood Mac comparisons for years, and somehow lived up to them. (They even did a genuinely incendiary cover of “The Chain” back in 2013 at the CMT Music Awards, with bonus righteous Keith Urban shredding and awkward Taylor Swift headbanging.) They specialize in exquisite four-part harmonies and luxurious soft-rock cheese, but, like, fancy cheese. Brie, or whatever the Southern equivalent of brie is. They’re great and just a little volatile, inclined to go their own way while still somehow giving you exactly what you want. Their new album, The Breaker, came out Friday; it might not be their best, but it’s their fullest, their most opulent and humid, their most flagrantly Reaganomical.

Please enjoy “Lost in California,” a twilight “scarves billowing out of a convertible” slow jam that the band enthusiastically describes as “hillbilly Sade.”

It takes at least a decade to earn the right to coin a phrase that loony. The “hillbilly” part came first: “Boondocks,” an early LBT hit from 2005, has the twang, the stomp-and-handclap barnyard exuberance, the livestock-heavy video. But over the course of 15 years and eight albums, they’ve slowly but steadily upgraded from a rowboat to a yacht, their biggest singles — from “Little White Church” to “Pontoon” to “Day Drinking” — awash in cheerful, wholesome small-town pornography that gets glossier and higher-definition all the time. (Drunker, too.) They now tower over the competition — former reigning champions Lady Antebellum, especially — in the soft-rock-leaning wing of mainstream country music, where everybody’s aiming for Rumours-grade opulence, all the time. (Everyone else just rips off Tom Petty instead.) Meanwhile, they’ve hijacked and enlivened many an awards show, giving delightfully sloppy acceptance speeches at the country ones and increasingly expert and charming performances at the multi-genre ones. (They were the only tolerable part of the Bee Gees tribute at the Grammys a couple of weeks back.)

“Girl Crush,” from 2014’s Pain Killer, is probably their biggest and/or most critically acclaimed tune to date, a stark unrequited-love stunner with just a touch of gender-reversal subversion. (Nashville prefers its progressivism with a wink, a sly smile, and a whole lot of plausible deniability.) The stately, shattering lead single off The Breaker is “Better Man,” which just happens to have been written by one Taylor Swift, with all the bulletproof grandeur and soaring self-pity that implies. It’s a fantastic song, which LBT leave you free to enjoy without the several dozen Lear jets’ worth of baggage Swift herself would’ve brought to it at this particular time. You’re welcome, America.

Like the band’s past several records, The Breaker is produced by Jay Joyce, a Nashville outsider-turned-insider best known for his audacious and great work with artsy-fartsy badass Eric Church. What LBT add to the formula is chemistry and versatility. Karen Fairchild sings lead most often, from “Better Man” to the arch, Randy Newman-esque “Happy People.” But the other three members get some shots off. Kimberly Schlapman (she of the majestic, leonine hair) spruces up the spare and devout “Beat Up Bible,” and the boys hang in there: Jimi Westbrook is the classic-rock guy, laying down some burly Bob Seger white-gospel vibes on “Rollin’,” while Phillip Sweet brings a light touch to the shuffling nostalgia lullaby “We Went to the Beach.”

None of this is radical, exactly, in sound or attitude, but Little Big Town are the rare Nashville-approved big shots who still seem to be innovating and resisting both outright bro-country tomfoolery and the “real country” quasi-outlaw backlash that can feel just as tired and perfunctory. These days most country stars are either writing dumb songs about driving pickup trucks down back roads, or writing pious, joyless, pandering songs just to underscore their valiant refusal to write dumb songs about driving pickup trucks down back roads. LBT bring a wit and verve to their silliest and weepiest material alike, from their many, many drinking songs to the shrewd prestige plays. They’re still capable of surprise after 15 years, and still incapable of pandering. They’re veterans with the wide-eyed (and red-eyed) verve of rookies.

Which is to say, they’re playful and odd and pretty close to fearless for artists this established: Last year they put out Wanderlust, a reggae-tinged, eight-track collaboration with Pharrell that tried to think outside a few too many boxes simultaneously, resulting in a sort of “goes to Bonnaroo once” mishmash that confused everyone and totally satisfied no one.

I’m glad they did that, though, and I hope they keep on doing stuff just like it — or even more ideally, new stuff that isn’t like it at all. Here’s the rare case where you can draw a straight line from yesterday’s noble misses to today’s direct hits. Wanderlust vanished on impact, but it registered as a wayward-yet-valiant detour, not an arrogant betrayal. Their fans tolerate a goodly amount of soul-searching and genre scavenging, because they know LBT will be back, returning to core principles but never quite retreating. “Night on Our Side” is another pink-Cadillac Breaker jam, a killer highway anthem with a joyous refrain of “Start a revolution!” that does indeed make driving around aimlessly sound vaguely revolutionary. It’s more evidence of a delicate, durable formula still being expertly and painstakingly refined. These are Trojan horses you can ride like mechanical bulls. Hold on loosely.