It’s hard to make real history in a genre as storied as country music, but that’s exactly what Little Big Town did this weekend. On Friday, the Grammy-winning quartet kicked off the first residency in the 125-year history of Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium.
The band kicked off the first pair of nine scheduled 2017 shows (with more expected to be added) by performing their new album, The Breaker, from front to back on Friday and Saturday nights. For some artists, playing an hours-old album all the way through on street date would be risky. However, the gamble paid off for Little Big Town: hundreds of fans were singing along with the brand-new songs as if they were old favorites.
It helps that practically every song on the album is memorable. The Breaker is perhaps Little Big Town’s best album yet—its own remarkable accomplishment when you consider the band has been performing together for almost two decades. The group is a bit like Tom Brady in that sense: they’ve always been great, but they seem to get even better with time.
The Breaker includes a number of standout tracks, including the Taylor Swift-penned “Better Man,” which has been No. 1 at country radio for two weeks in a row. “Free,” a track written by back-to-back Grammy Best Country Song award-winner Lori McKenna, plus Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird is an early favorite, as is the McKenna and Hailey Whitters-penned “Happy People.” The album should land at No. 1 on next week’s Billboard Top Country Albums Chart and make a strong showing on the Top 200.
Little Big Town has been a favorite in the country genre, regularly winning CMA and ACM Awards, for more than a decade. In the past few years, however, they’ve transcended country to gain a following beyond the genre. In 2016, they won a Grammy for “Girl Crush,” a phenomenal song that spent 13 weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart (the longest ever for a song by a group). They also released Wanderlust, a pop EP produced by Pharrell Williams with guest vocals by Justin Timberlake. At this year’s Grammy Awards, the group was one of only three acts to perform twice—the others were Adele and Bruno Mars.
After playing through The Breaker, Little Big Town delighted fans with a medley of hits. Fans hoping to see the complete album next time the band takes the Ryman stage are out of luck, though. “We’re going to play this record once tonight and once tomorrow night and that will be it,” Kimberly Schlapman told the crowd. “We are so excited about this night, y’all. We have worked on it for over a year.”
The 2,300-seat theater was filled with the band’s family and friends, songwriters and collaborators. The artists frequently waved to, thanked, and said “hello” to faces they recognized in the crowd. They invited some friends onstage, too—Sam Hunt and Chris Stapleton joined the party Friday night, with Andra Day making a guest appearance on Saturday. All in all, the Ryman’s first residency couldn’t have kicked off on a higher note.
Ryman VP/GM Sally Williams has hinted that more residencies will follow. Given the venue’s rich tradition of music, the next act to set up shop may not be a country act. The Ryman Auditorium (then known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle) opened in 1892 and has played host to countless historic shows. Perhaps most famously, the Ryman was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 – 1974. It was also the home of several Country Music Association (CMA) Awards broadcasts and the ABC variety series The Johnny Cash Show.
“Little Big Town At The Mother Church” will continue throughout 2017. Tickets range from $50 – $90.