In the aftermath of my recent post on Brad Paisley’s decline, I received a request from Kory to investigate another country act whose career seemed to be fading:
I wasn’t as familiar with Little Big Town’s career as I was with Paisley’s, but the group’s journey has been fascinating to watch: They’d gone through two record label changes, several crazy trends, and one overblown “controversy,” and yet they had not only survived, but seemingly thrived, with several massive career-defining hits to their credit. It’s been a while, however, since they’d last seen success on the radio, so it was fair to wonder if the quartet had finally reached their expiration date. After everything that the group had lived through, what was the factor that finally knocked them off the mountain?
The answer is…well, it’s complicated, but I think we can start with a quote from Maren Morris’s recent single release :
“When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter…”
In Little Big Town’s case, the bones were not good, which made them overly-reliant on “the rest.”
For It’s One, Two, Three Strikes You’re Out
The partnership between an act and their label is critical for realizing mainstream success, as very few can break through on country radio without the muscle and money of a Nashville powerhouse behind them. Little Big Town’s formative years, however, were the exact opposite of act/label harmony:
- The group signed with Mercury Nashville all the way back in 1999, but the deal collapsed over “disagreements about musical direction.”
- Monument Records scooped up the group in 2000 and released their self-titled debut in 2002, but the album didn’t go over well, and the label ended up folding that same year.
- Three years later, LBT signed with Clint Black’s Equity Music Group, finally found some airplay traction with “Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home”…and then left to join Capitol Records in 2008. (Equity would close its doors later that year)
For those counting at home, that’s four different records in the span of ten years, and arguably the entirety of the band’s formative years. (That three-year hole from 2002-2005 doesn’t help matters either.) Not having that consistent backing from the start meant that Little Big Town struggled to build the contacts/relationships needed to earn their playlist slots, and didn’t build the early name recognition to sustain their career long-term.
(I Don’t) Need You Now
But hey, better late than never, right? With Capital’s support, by 2010 LBT had a new album (The Reason Why) and a buzzy leadoff single (“White Church,” which would eventually peak at #6). There have been false-start success stories in country music before (Rodney Atkins comes to mind), and LBT seemed poised to be another one.
…Except that the year before, they had gotten scooped by their own labelmates.
2009 was arguably the Year of Lady Antebellum: The trio (who had joined Capitol back in 2007) earned their first No. 1 single with “I Run To You,” and then absolutely exploded with “Need You Now,” which not only topped the country charts, but nearly topped the Billboard 100 as well. Lady A spent the next few years dominating the radio, cleaning up on the award circuits, and generally sucking up all the oxygen in the room, leaving little room for a similarly-styled mixed-gender vocal group like Little Big Town to shine. Why listen to an “off-brand Lady A” when you could hear the real thing instead?
Frankly, I have some serious questions about why Capitol picked up Little Big Town when Lady Antebellum was already on their roster. Was Capitol just hedging their bets in case Lady A didn’t pan out? I don’t have an answer, but I have a sinking feeling that being “the other group” at the label meant that a) LBT didn’t get the kind of support or backing that Lady A did, and b) LBT was forced to make changes to try to distinguish themselves from their more-successful counterparts.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Little Big Town ended up losing another four years of success and momentum playing second fiddle to Lady Antebellum. That brings us to fourteen years of struggling to break through, which is enough to make anyone feel desperate.
What do country artists do when they’re desperate? They start trend-hopping.
Bro-Country: Not Just For Bros
The early 2010s saw the rise of the Bro-Country era within country music, a period characterized by “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” With its heavy beats and misogynistic undertones, you would think that Bro-Country would be the last thing Little Big Town wanted to see coming. Instead, however, LBT leaned into the party-hardy vibe, riding the wave to its first No. 1 hit “Pontoon” in 2012 and reaching #2 with “Day Drinking” two years later.
The success was a much-needed shot in the arm for the group, but it didn’t translate beyond the trend: After “Tornado” rode the coattails of “Poontoon” to #2, Little Big Town’s next two singles (the more-traditional “Your Side Of The Bed” and “Sober”) failed to crack the Top 25, forcing them to ride the wave again with “Day Drinking.” If LBT was going to break out of this vicious cycle, they were going to need something big.
In 2015, they got it…or did they?
While the controversy over “Girl Crush” ended up being more smoke than fire, there’s no denying that the song was a massive hit for the quartet: Its chart peaks (#3 airplay, #22 Hot 100) rivaled that of “Pontoon” (#1, #18), and it sold significantly better as a single (“Girl Crush” went triple-platinum to “Pontoon”‘s double-platinum). This was surely the group’s “Need You Now” moment, the catalyst that would finally launch them into the stratosphere.
And then Pain Killer’s title track crashed and burned at #38, and the group was suddenly back where they started.
Looking back, you could make the case that “Girl Crush” was really just another trend-hopping song in disguise: Its slick electric guitars, synthetic clap track, and slower, sensual feel fit perfectly into the Metropolitan sounds that were emerging at the time. (A similar accusation could be leveled against 2016’s “Better Man,” except that the wave they rode was the tail end of songwriter Taylor Swift’s 1989 success.) Either way, “Better Man” was pretty much the last we heard of Little Big Town, with no single peaking above #29 on Billboard’s airplay chart since.
So What Actually Happened?
To be honest, the more I examine the career of Little Big Town, the more I think that their situation isn’t that exceptional at all. A combination of bad luck and bad timing put them on a precarious path early, which forced them to compromise to get any radio momentum at all. Quite a few artists have fallen into this trap over the years (anyone heard from Easton Corbin lately?), and while the hits that Little Big Town managed to accumulate were relatively big ones, they weren’t enough to overcome their early deficit. (As of right now, LBT’s chart stats are not that impressive: They have only eight Top Tens and three #1 songs to speak of. In contrast, Lady Antebellum has thirteen and nine, respectively.)
Is there anything LBT could have done to avoid this fate? Possibly: Little Big Town is one of the few groups in country music without a consistent lead vocalist, which is atypical of successful bands in the genre (Alabama had Randy Owen, Diamond Rio had Marty Roe, Lonestar had Richie McDonald, Shenandoah had Marty Raybon…heck, even Midland generally leans on Mark Wystrach for lead vocals). LBT received feedback early in their career that such a move might have helped their chances for radio success, but the quartet resisted the idea. It’s reasonable to ask whether such a move would have actually helped that much anyway—after all, Lady Antebellum mostly split their vocals between Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley, and they seemed to fare pretty well. (Full Disclosure: Personally, between LBT and Lady A, I’ve always felt that Lady A was the better and more-talented group.)
The more interesting question is whether or not Little Big Town has another recovery left in them. I have my doubts: Given that they signed their first record deal the same year Brad Paisley released his debut single, time is not on LBT’s side. If there’s any act that can pull it off, however, it’s a boom-or-bust group like Little Big Town, as they’ve proven themselves capable of putting together the sort of massive song that can get everyone’s attention. However, until that happens, as Gone West might say, we’re stuck wondering about “What Could’ve Been.”