"Pontoons are sexy, people!" declares Karen Fairchild, making an assertion no chart-watcher should dispute, since "Pontoon" became the country anthem of the summer.
"I think people call it 'The Motorboatin' Song,' too," points out Jimi Westbrook. "I was doing some (radio) interviews and they were like 'Yeah, they were calling it for that motorboating song.' So maybe that helped it, too," he says, alluding to the song's slightly risqué connotations.
Adds Kimberly Schlapman, "It certainly didn't hurt." Enough said. Or enough, um, suggested.
"Pontoon" is one of seven songs Little Big Town played at an exclusive Ram Country gig at the Roxy, which is now up in its entirety at Yahoo! Music. On their bus before the show, the four members of the group told us about the making of their just-released fifth album, Tornado, and its ubiquitous lead single.
A lot of country music fans were shocked a few weeks ago by the news that the platinum-selling "Pontoon" had become Little Big Town's first No. 1 single. Not because anyone would have expected any lesser chart position for the song that became a summer phenomenon… but shocked because it was difficult to believe that their previous "signature song," "Boondocks," never reached the top when it came out in 2005, even though that classic's ongoing radio play would make anyone think that'd been a No. 1.
"It only went to No. 8 or 9 or something like that," points out Schlapman. She's right: "Boondocks" peaked at No. 9, shockingly. "But a lot of people think it was a No. 1, which is fine with us, because it was a big ole hit."
"We don't correct 'em," laughs Westbrook. "It's been the song that has taken us to the party..."
"And now with 'Pontoon,' it's given us another big song that people just light up about. When we start the first lick in the beginning of the song, the crowd just goes crazy. And that's a testament to them hearing it a lot."
"I don't think we've ever been sure we would have a No. 1," Westbrook says, but "after we cut the track, our producer at one point kind of joked when he said, 'That sounds like a big hit just ready to pick off the hit tree!'"
Although "Pontoon" has an ever-so-racy feel to it, the most sensual track from their current crop is "Tornado," as you'll see from Fairchild's sexy reading of the track in the band's Roxy performance. That one may or may not be a future single, but there was a different reason they made it the title track.
"The album being titled Tornado I think is just reflective of the process we went through recording it," Westbrook says. "And, too, there was like a storm brewing—a good storm brewing—in our camp of positive changes. And we did the record so fast, really, that it felt like a storm that came and went and it was gone. It was such a really interesting process—new for us."
The album was done in "three weeks, top to bottom," says Fairchild, "but most of it in seven days." "Which for us is unheard of," adds Schlapman. "We rehearsed for four days really hard, then for the next three days we cut the record. At the end of seven days, we couldn't believe we might be done! Crazy." Says Schlapman, "We didn't plan on doing it that quick. We allowed a lot of time. But it was going so well that we decided that we shouldn't belabor things, and should just go with it when it felt right, and go with our gut and Jay (Joyce)'s gut, our producer. And it worked, so we were like, 'Hmm, we're done, I think!'"
Working with a producer other than their long-time helmer Wayne Kirkpatrick was one switch. Working fast was another. A third change: "Our live band played on this record with us," Philip West points out. "We've done that on a couple of songs before, but not the entire album. We all cut it at the same time, right there in the same room. For me personally, I feel like I feel that energy that we were experiencing as it was going down. It was just like playing a live show."
And a fourth big switch on Tornado: help from a plethora of big-name Music Row songwriters, including Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Liz Rose, and the Warren Brothers. The band members did co-wrote five of the 11 tracks on Tornado, but that's fewer than on any of their previous four albums. Obviously that approach has paid off, as "Pontoon," for one, was an outside pick.
Their approach going in to recording the new album was "just that we were gonna be wide open about songs, and we weren't gonna have ego or be too precious about anything," Fairchild says. "It didn't matter where the song was going to come from. It just had to feel right and then we were gonna cut it. We always try to write most of the material for a record, but we just let ourselves be open this time. And we started building the record from songs that we found—which is unusual."
Fairchild points out that "after we started writing with people that we'd never written with before, Natalie (Hemby) came in with this amazing idea of doing something that we had never done before, which is kind of duets within the band. So 'Night Owl' is the song that we wrote that day. That was her melodic idea, to have the guys sing and then Kimberly and I sing and never really join until we got to the bridge... We just got really inspired by the community and being so wide open ourselves, personally. I think you can hear that on our record. There's an energy there and some spontaneity there that's been good for us."
The most striking use of the duet form on Tornado is the bittersweet ballad "On Your Side of the Bed," which all four band members co-wrote with Americana fave Lori McKenna. It's sung as a back-and-forth by Fairchild and Westbrook.
"I love that moment on the record and in the live show," says Schlapman, "because Karen and Jimi are married, of course. That's not an autobiographical story of their lives, but I think everybody can identity with that point in a relationship where you're going 'Hey, here I am! I'm over here!' It's beautiful. And that chorus, which is just a cry out for help, when we get there every night, it's such an emotional thing."
Schlapman has previous described the band, which has been together for 13 years, as "like an old married couple." Don't they know that sounds a little bit mathematically improbable?
"It does," Schlapman laughs, "but we all know exactly what that means. We've been together so long, we're a family—that might be a better way of saying it."
"An old happily married couple," clarifies Fairchild.
"Yeah, we are a living, breathing country song, aren't we?" Westbrook wonders aloud.
"But we can read each other's minds, almost," Schlapman says. "We really don't have to speak a whole lot, especially Karen and I."
"The girls are scary," Westbrook says.
"We can literally talk to each other without saying a word at this point," Fairchild says. "One night when I got really hoarse on tour recently, I lost my voice, and I was trying to make it through the show for the fans. And I wanted her to help me go for this big note with me. So I just turned around, and she was up on this riser playing tambourine, and I thought 'Oh dear God, please help me,' and she did. We just did it together. I couldn't really tell her what I was wanting to verbalize, so I just looked at her like 'Are you understanding what's going on here,' and she gave me that 'I get it—I know what you're saying' look. So, yeah, that's the beautiful thing about having a longtime girlfriend."
"It's a little freaky," says Sweet.
"Even for the two of us, we're still outside of that," admits Westbrook. "I don't know how that works."
The band has been together for 13 years, but Fairchild and Schlapman have been friends for 25 years. Does that mean the two guys are still always perpetually 12 years behind, somehow?
"But isn't that always how guys are?" asks Schlapman.
"They pay attention if you say things like motorboatin'," says Fairchild. "You know what I mean. All of a sudden they go, what?"
"Yeah, when those superpowers are used against us, we don't have a chance," Westbrook admits. "Bottom line."
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