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Little Big Town part of major concert lineup at Florida Strawberry Festival (w/full schedule)

Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild and Phillip Sweet just released their eighth studio album as Little Big Town, "The Breaker."
Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild and Phillip Sweet just released their eighth studio album as Little Big Town, "The Breaker."
Published Mar. 2, 2017

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Kimberly Schlapman stood back in the shadows, watching a group of Orlando-area high schoolers rehearse during a performing arts workshop at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort. And she couldn't help but reminisce about her own days in high school and college choir.

"It took me right back to that classroom, on those risers, and my teacher and the piano, and all the songs that we sang, and all the trips we took together," said the singer, a fourth of country vocal superstars Little Big Town. "Karen (Fairchild) and I met on a bus going to choir camp a few years ago. And that started this band, really. I can trace it all the way back to choir."

You can hear it in Little Big Town's chart-topping sound. In contrast to the boozy flash and pyrotechnic dazzle of some recent country sensations, it's the honeyed four-part harmonies among Schlapman, Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet that led to Little Big Town's slow but undeniable rise to country's A-list.

After nearly 20 years together, they're finally enjoying success like few country groups ever have. They've won a handful of Grammys, they're on a five-year streak as the Country Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year, and they just released their eighth studio album, The Breaker. Last week, they kicked off a six-show residency at the Ryman Auditorium — the first ever at the iconic Nashville venue — and on Sunday, they'll play their second prime-time slot in four years at the Florida Strawberry Festival.

And it all started with those four voices.

"In the beginning of our career, we, I think, were so worried about everything being so perfect, and then we realized what people really want are genuine, honest performances," Fairchild said. "Even if they're not perfect, they're felt, and then everyone will feel them with you."

That credibility took years to earn. After forming in Alabama and then Nashville in 1998, the group went through several rounds of label and personal hell, including divorces, the death of Schlapman's husband (who was also the band's lawyer) and a blossoming romance between Westbrook and Fairchild, who married in 2006.

"Being in a vocal band like we are, all those things we learned along the way, those experiences, we took with us, and it helped us to hear and listen to each other," Sweet said. "To hear and sing harmonies is just as much listening as it is singing."

The group's persistence paid off with a pair of Top 10 singles, Boondocks and Bring It on Home, and tours with George Strait and Carrie Underwood. Then, in 2012, came a major breakthrough with Pontoon, the group's first No. 1 and the CMA's choice for Single of the Year. They'd win that award again in 2015 with Girl Crush, a retro slow-dance phenomenon that became a pop crossover hit.

"I think everybody understands rejection and jealousy," Fairchild said.

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"Especially in high school," Schlapman added.

"That melody, too, is such a beautiful, singable melody," Westbrook said. "That's part of the charm of it."

Crossover success tempted them to wade deeper into pop waters. For 2016's Wanderlust, they enlisted the help of Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake.

"It was so exhilarating to be on the edge and have to do it right in the moment," Westbrook said. "Pharrell is just a musical genius. His mind, to watch him, how he works. … It was really one of my favorite musical experiences of my life."

"And he had such respect for all ideas in the room," Sweet said. "He came up with great ideas, but he was always so respectful, and we listened to each other."

On the surface, The Breaker feels like a return to a more traditional form. It was produced by Nashville superproducer Jay Joyce, who also helmed 2014's Pain Killer. But the band embraces its newfound pop stardom. They're fans of Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and John Mayer; at this year's Grammys, they sang a Bee Gees tribute with Demi Lovato and Tori Kelly. The Breaker's lead single, Better Man, was written specifically for the group by none other than Taylor Swift.

"We're always experimenting and trying to do things we've never done before, because we don't want to make the same record over and over again," Fairchild said. "It's just experiment and discovery."

The group preached that message during its Disney appearance, part of a nationwide initiative by the nonprofit National Association for Music Education. In a panel for about 50 students, members discussed overcoming stage fright, preserving their voices ("We pass around a honey bear before we walk on stage," Fairchild said) and learning, in their 40s, to live with imperfections.

"We forgot words the other night to a song," Fairchild said. "It happens to everybody."

"There's beauty in that," Westbrook added.

"There is," Fairchild said. "Just delivering something that is so heartfelt and honest and vulnerable is way better than something that's perfect."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.