Little Big Town welcomes pop to its country world
(Handout photo, Baltimore Sun)

Country circles have debated it for decades: Is crossing over to the pop mainstream good or bad for country music, a genre so steeped in tradition?

Jimi Westbrook, one of the four singers in the Alabama group Little Big Town — which performs at Saturday's InfieldFEST — stands firmly on the positive side.


"It's always happened, but as time passes, people forget that," Westbrook said. "It doesn't bother me at all. It makes it better."

With collaborations between artists in different genres occurring more frequently (Preakness infield main-stagers Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa offer a recent example with their hit "Payphone"), Westbrook argues, why shouldn't country join the fun?

"We need to be on the world landscape," Westbrook said. "The whole music community is a global community now, and we should be in the mix."

For more than a year, Little Big Town has uploaded live covers — ranging from Bruno Mars to Jessie J — to YouTube in its "Scattered, Smothered and Covered" series. One rendition became so popular that it had to be added to group's regular set list.

"The song fans freaked out over the most was 'Born This Way,' the [Lady] Gaga song," Westbrook said. "You say you're going to do Gaga, and [the fans] look at you like, 'What?' and then the banjo cranks up and everyone goes, 'Oh, I get it.'"

The covers — along with "Pontoon," a new single that was added to local country music radio station WPOC's playlist this week — will have to hold fans over until Little Big Town releases its (currently untitled) fifth album. The "more in-your-face" record is finished, Westbrook says, and the band (which includes Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman and Philip Sweet) hopes it will hit stories in mid-September.

For the new album, the band changed its routine, working much faster than it usually does. ("We had the bulk of the record done in seven days," Westbrook said.) They also swapped out longtime producer Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce (Eric Church's "Chief") in an effort to capture the "raw energy" of Little Big Town's live show.

"This whole process was about fresh inspiration and new perspective," Westbrook said. "We've been a band for a decade now, and you have to shake things up every now and then."

One aspect that hasn't changed is the group's tight-knit relationship. Little Big Town is the increasingly rare act that has maintained the same lineup of members since it began, which Westbrook attributes to everyone working "for the greater good of the band."

"We check our egos at the door," he said. "We each get a moment to shine, and we create other moments for each other to shine. That whole spirit makes it so much easier."

They plan to display those moments at the Jagermeister stage Saturday (scheduled to go on at 12:05 p.m.). It's the band's first time at Pimlico, and Westbrook says he and the others plan to stick around and watch the other acts.

It seems natural to ask any Preakness first-timer if he's heard of the infield's rowdy reputation. After hearing it can get "pretty wild," Westbrook responded with a laugh.

"That's fine with me," he said. "That makes a fun concert."