The so-called big break got them nowhere.
Kimberly Roads, Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook and Phil Sweet - collectively known as the country-pop quartet Little Big Town - landed a record deal with Sony Music in 2000. The mighty label poured about $1 million into the recording and promotion of the band's self-titled debut, which finally hit stores in 2002.
But the album, insincere and polished within an inch of its life, bombed. The foursome and Sony were unhappy, and the company soon dropped the band. After three years of toiling on the club circuit and writing material, Little Big Town resurfaced with The Road to Here, released in the fall of 2005 by Equity Music, an independent label co-founded by country star Clint Black.
Propelled by the catchy hits "Boondocks" and "Bring It On Home," the album has gone platinum, selling a million copies.
Sony's loss was definitely a huge gain for Little Big Town.
"The lesson is we learned what not to do," says Sweet, the group's available mouthpiece. He and his bandmates open for Martina McBride at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on Saturday. "With an independent label, we have so much creative control. ... We liked having the ability to choose our material and put our heart in the album."
Unlike its predecessor, The Road to Here doesn't suffer from heavy applications of pop gloss. Although the album is a polished effort bubbling with songs pitched perfect for commercial country radio, more personality comes across this time. Recorded on analog tape with minimal studio wizardry or vocal enhancements, the album also radiates a nice warmth, a certain realness seldom heard on commercial country releases these days. Sweet, who last week was performing with the group in Atlanta, credits the album's verve and distinction to the sympathetic direction of producer Wayne Kirkpatrick and the smoothly democratic nature of the group.
"I don't think we try to force anything in the band," he says. "It's a very open place for creativity. It's a real plus that we can work together so well with open communication and honesty."
The chemistry was immediate when the group formed in Georgia in 1998. The group has over the years synthesized its main influences, namely Appalachian music, Emmylou Harris and Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. In reviews, the strong harmonies and solid musicianship rippling through The Road to Here have garnered frequent comparisons to the latter act. "I think it's awesome," Sweet says. "To be compared to one of pop music's biggest-selling groups is like, 'Wow, mega-cool,' to use a Valley Girl phrase."
Last year, Little Big Town shared the stage with one of Fleetwood Mac's star members, Lindsey Buckingham, on the Country Music Television series Crossroads.
"He had some great advice," Sweet says. "He saw in us that we were on the same page. He said he admired that. He and the other members of Fleetwood Mac were on completely different pages during the height of their success. He told us he admired our chemistry."
Unlike many groups, there's no lead singer in Little Big Town. As heard on "Boondocks," a rollicking ode to Southern living, vocal duties are almost equally shared among the members, who hail from Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. They also share songwriting duties. Over the past two years, as the band has toured nationally on the strength of The Road to Here, the members have been writing songs for the follow-up. The album, still untitled, is scheduled for fall release.
"There are some good-feeling songs. It's an evolution," Sweet says of the new material. "We're writing about issues on our hearts. We're in a good creative place."
With a light-hearted chuckle he adds, "It's all exciting."
See Little Big Town at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, on Saturday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $40-$75 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.