‘Pontoon’ floats Little Big Town to the top

Little Big Town — (from left) Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, and Jimi Westbrook — accepting the Grammy for best country duo/group performance on Sunday.
Little Big Town — (from left) Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, and Jimi Westbrook — accepting the Grammy for best country duo/group performance on Sunday.

Kimberly Schlapman’s husband is a carpenter, and he’s been building some new shelves in their house, in part, to display some of the trophies that Schlapman has won in the past year as one quarter of the country vocal quartet Little Big Town. The group scored the Country Music Association award for vocal group of the year and single of the year last November for their smash hit “Pontoon,” and in December the American Country Award for music video of the year.

“The other day, he was working on the shelves and he said, ‘Baby, I’m thinking a Grammy would look good right here,’” says Schlapman in her peach-sweet Georgia drawl, on the phone from LA where the band was planning on attending the ceremony this past Sunday. “I said, ‘If that were to happen I might put it on the front door, not a shelf on the wall.’ ”

Schlapman and her husband had better have some strong epoxy on hand because they should be installing their Grammy door-knocker right about now. Little Big Town — Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook, and Phillip Sweet — won the award for best country duo or group performance last Sunday. And they might want to consider adding a few more tiers of shelving just in case, since three days later the group was nominated for four Academy of Country Music Awards.


“It has been overwhelmingly exciting. So many amazing things have happened,” says Schlapman, who will no doubt bring that winning spirit to Little Big Town’s sold-out show at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium on Saturday.

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The quartet — revered by fans and critics for their luscious harmonies — is no stranger to success. Since 2002, the group has released four critically acclaimed albums, enjoyed top 10 country hits like “Boondocks” and “Little White Church,” and have been employed as a go-to, can’t-miss opening act for arena headliners like Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts. But in 2012, their dynamic fifth album, “Tornado,” and its frothy, good-time summer jam “Pontoon” — boasting 2 million downloads — boosted the group to another level.

They can feel the good will surrounding their victories, says Schlapman.

“The outpouring of love and support and just genuine excitement from people, even people that we’re so-called competitors of, other groups in the category, has been amazing.”

And, to think, they almost motorboated right past “Pontoon.”


“When you’re making a record, you get pitched so many songs,” says Schlapman of the outside songwriters who routinely contribute to Nashville recordings alongside the band members. “And you try to go through all of them, but lo and behold, something falls by the wayside, and that one did. Jimi woke up one morning remembering the title and saying, ‘I wonder what that song was about?’ So he tracked down that e-mail and listened to the song and called [Fairchild, his wife] in to listen to it, and then he called me and Phillip and said, ‘Y’all got to hear this song.’ ”

It was the first track they recorded for “Tornado,” which they ended up approaching with a new attitude, recording live in the studio with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Emmylou Harris), who challenged them to step outside their comfort zone. Most of the album was completed, aptly, in a whirlwind seven days.

“I think it was time to shake things up,” says Schlapman of the fast and loose approach. “We had such a great captain of our team in Jay Joyce. His person is just so unique and different and his ideas are out of the box. We were feeding off each other like crazy. Everybody’s excitement was fueling the fire and it was electric in that room and it was raw.”

This energy is captured in songs like the stripped back and menacing title track, the foot­stomper “Front Porch Thing,” the feisty band manifesto “Self Made,” and the wistful “Your Side of the Bed” penned by the band and Stoughton singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, who counts herself a big fan.

“I love it because it goes so many places you don’t see coming,” says McKenna of “Tornado.” “It’s one of those records where you have to listen to the whole record.”


And like many others in the business, McKenna is thrilled to see the hard-working quartet have a breakthrough moment.

“It’s like everybody gets it now. And the thing is, everybody loves them so much that it’s been this joyfest because everyone is so proud of them, and ‘Pontoon’ being as big as it was,” she says, of the song co-written by her pal Barry Dean, who produced McKenna’s own magnificent 2011 release, “Lorraine.” “It’s just been awesome on so many different levels, seeing those people that you’re so in awe of anyway finally get to this level where everybody knows who they are and the music’s coming through.”

“In my opinion, no one has worked harder to get where they are,” says fellow country star Luke Bryan. “They’ve hung in there like you should and stuck with their fans and grew and grew and it’s so refreshing that that gets rewarded.”

The reward is in a sold-out concert tour of venues that are now probably too small to match their popularity, which Schlapman calls “the cherry on top of the icing on the cake.”

“I will tell you though, being a headliner, there’s a greater sense of responsibility and it’s a little bit more scary than being on a cushy Keith Urban tour where we’re not responsible for putting bootys in the seats,” says Schlapman, who will return with her bandmates to open for Urban at the Comcast Center on Aug. 10. “It’s a little more stressful and scary but the payoff is just incredible.”

Sarah Rodman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.