Little Big Town had hoped to dial things back in 2017 after years of hard touring. Instead, as new album The Breaker (Feb. 24, Capitol Nashville) precedes a yearlong residency at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium as well as a slew of domestic and international dates, the reigning Country Music Association vocal group of the year is as busy as ever. The album — a more wide-ranging mix of pop-rock, slick country and blue-eyed soul — has already gotten a boost from its Taylor Swift-penned single, “Better Man,” which has topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. The group’s Jimi Westbrook and Kimberly Schlapman break down the “Girl Crush” band’s big collaboration and place within country.
How did “Better Man” come your way?
Westbrook: Taylor sent it in an email — I don’t even know when she wrote it. She never cut it, but it was always a special song to her, and she felt like she could hear our harmonies on that chorus. She doesn’t really pitch her songs to anybody. I love that it’s definitely a country chorus, the chord structure of it and everything.
The song had been out for weeks before her co-writing credit was revealed. Why the secrecy?
Westbrook: Taylor is the biggest star in the world. Everything she does and says, everybody wants to talk about it. We felt like the song needed to be heard for what it was. We all know that when Taylor’s name gets associated with it, it becomes a pop phenomenon. But we wanted it to stand on its own, so we decided not to tell right off the bat. She loved that.
Describe the sound you were going for on the album, and how it differs from past projects.
Schlapman: It’s my favorite record we have ever made. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before. I love the message — it’s warm, it’s nostalgic, it’s uplifting.Every time we make a record we want it to be different … but we always also want it to be still recognizable for fans that have hung in there with us for so many years.
The band wrote only three of the album’s 12 songs. Was that planned?
Westbrook: That wasn’t deliberate. We’re led by the songs that move us, that we fall in love with. Our harmony is the thread throughout all of our albums, but we want to try new things. It’s not really about whether we wrote it or not.
What role has Little Big Town played in helping the sound of country expand during the last decade?
Westbrook: There’s such a wide array of talent, and in that landscape, it’s hard to know where we fit. Our sound has always had different flavors, so hopefully we have opened the door for more diversity within country. We’ve always tried not to stay in those comfort zones.
Any thoughts on the political events of the last few months, or on the role you and your country music peers should play in discussing those issues?
Schlapman: We as a band don’t get political. We just know our job is to make music that helps people escape or feel better, whether it’s in celebration [or] in grief. I look at moments in my life and records that have gotten me through really difficult times. I just needed the therapy of the music. So in today’s time, we want our music to do that for people.
Westbrook: I’ve never been a super-political person. I have been this year, because it’s impossible not to with the circus of politicians that have surfaced, but I don’t think people want to hear that from me. What we do have to do is to show acceptance and love to people of all types: all races, all religions, all colors. This band loves all people. That’s the message — if there is one — that we stand on.