Little Big Town's 'Mr. Sun' expands artistic scope while maintaining a successful formula

"Connecting with all the creative spirits we worked with on this album? It was the greatest thing. I get chills thinking about it."

Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook has been working in Nashville as a musician for 25 years. He — alongside his compatriots Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, and Phillip Sweet — has done everything from being the first act to play a six-show residency at the Ryman Auditorium to opening for The Eagles and being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. Inducing chills in an artist of this caliber is an impressive feat.

However, for "Mr. Sun," their tenth studio album out on September 16,  the band worked with 33 songwriters from three countries and 20 states.

Sweet notes that writing with new writers is a "wonderful experience" that "refreshes inspiration." The album was mainly written in response to 2020's COVID-19 quarantine, which for the Homewood, Alabama-born quartet occurred just as they were getting into the swing of touring for their 2020-released album "Nightfall."

Westbrook states that "appreciation over sadness" was perhaps the best way to view those months and how they inspired "Mr. Sun" as a final product. Karen Fairchild feels the album could also be regarded as dovetailing well with "Nightfall." "Our previous album had a number of heavier, sadder moments, but this one definitely deals more with looking forward," she adds. "The post-COVID dialogue with fans has to be more sensitive. We all dealt with so much trauma."

Though many artistic forces were tabbed in "Mr. Sun"'s creative process, two songs — Jimi Westbrook-penned "Rich Man' and Fairchild and Schlapman's co-write alongside frequent collaborators The Love Junkies (Liz Rose, Lori McKenna, and Hillary Lyndsey) for “Three Whiskeys and the Truth," proved that though always looking for more sources of inspiration, what has brought Little Big Town to already impressive levels of success is still noteworthy.

Before being included on this album, Jimi Westbrook's earnest, guitar-led "Rich Man" had the most extended lineage in the catalog of unrecorded and unreleased music in Little Big Town. The song is the "most heartfelt, personal, and special" he's ever written, dealing with "[his] love of family and their role in laying the foundation that anchors [him]."

The group heartily laughs and smiles knowingly at Westbrook when queried about a song that they've previously attempted to record on numerous occasions. Fairchild compares its journey to Miranda Lambert's Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin-penned 2010 hit "The House That Built Me" — they both took nearly a decade to craft.

Westbrook wishes that he had that song finished a decade ago. However, a decade of maturity and life lived evolved and simplified the song's meaning, amplifying its connectivity. "The simple songs are the hardest to write. Once Jimi stopped over-complicating it, it was ready," Fairchild notes.

"We love to bulls*** as much as anyone, but when you're in the room with Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, and Hillary Lyndsey, and they deliver the hook for 'Three Whiskeys and the Truth,' you're not lying to them," jokes Fairchild.

Little Big Town is well-regarded for motorboatin' on pontoons while drinking wine, beer, and whiskey all day long. However, Sweet notes that he and his fellow bandmembers are "scrappers" who value lyrical depth. "We're also adults who are comfortable with who were are," adds Westbrook. "We have families and live authentic lives."

Upon being asked what else inspired "Three Whiskeys and the Truth," Fairchild namedrops The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Bruce Springsteen alongside two 1980 classics: The Oak Ridge Boys' "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" and Willie Nelson's "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground" as "hardcore songs of substance" that inspired a heart-wrencher that outlines why "there ain't no lying" about why a lost love is being missed. That sorrow can only be faced after "three whiskeys and the truth."

Fairchild and Schlapman wax poetically about everything from being raised in the church to a shared love of country-adoring soul icon Gladys Knight when asked about who and what inspires their vocal performances on the album on the previously mentioned track, as well their personal album favorites like "Gold" and "God Fearing Gypsies."

"Delivering Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson songs as if you're trying to use Motown or soul phrasing — like Dolly Parton" was highlighted as a goal.

Alongside 2015's CMA Single of the Year "Girl Crush" and  2017's CMA, CMT, and Grammy-winning, Taylor Swift-written ballad "Better Man," in every facet, "Three Whiskeys and the Truth" is another career-defining performance.

Little Big Town arrives for the CMT Music Awards at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, April 11, 2022.
Little Big Town arrives for the CMT Music Awards at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, April 11, 2022.

2022 has already seen the group release album singles “All Summer,” "Better Love," and “Hell Yeah," that highlight not "bulls***," but oftentimes another vibe: "yacht rock."

For the past five years, the group has finally locked in on the party vibe that yielded them success early in the 2010s. "We got into those sounds heavily about four years ago. We know what our fans want to hear, and [with that inspiration now] we can deliver that as best for them as possible. People use our music as the soundtrack for really special nights and experiences."

When discussing the ties that have grown stronger from the recording process of their tenth studio album in 20 years, a snippet of conversation between the group best highlights their career's next steps.

"We have been blessed to do some amazing things," Sweet says. "Yeah, we have, but for me, it's all about continuing to wonder what else is around the bend," adds Fairchild. "If we didn't make music together, it'd feel like we were getting a divorce," Schlapman says. "It's all about celebrating our new relationships while maintaining the ones we've kept."

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: How Little Big Town's 'Mr. Sun' expands their scope while staying true