Little Big Town, Kristen Kelly
10475 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, MD, 21044
Even in a career as filled with music and milestones as that of Rascal Flatts, there are times when capturing the moment isn't difficult. Sometimes, it only takes a word. The release of Changed, the trio's eighth studio album, is a great case in point.
"Given what we've been through the past two years," says Jay DeMarcus, "I don't think there could be any better title. This feels like the next step in Rascal Flatts' evolution."
What the trio has been through amounts to an almost complete metamorphosis of the business aspects of their career. Jay, who handles bass and vocals, along with guitarist/vocalist Joe Don Rooney and lead vocalist extraordinaire Gary LeVox, have established themselves at Big Machine Records following the 2010 demise of their longtime label, and have joined forces with Spalding Entertainment after parting with their longtime management team. The fact that their first CD for Big Machine, Nothing Like This, hit #1 on the charts and produced three singles of the caliber of "Why Wait," "I Won't Let Go" and "Easy," would seem to indicate they've handled the process smoothly, but they are quick to point out that any transition this big holds its challenges.
"Change isn't always easy to go through," says Joe Don, "and some of this was hard for us. But fortunately there's another side to change. We're all family men now, husbands and fathers, and there is so much stability to draw on there. Put it all together, and it's life-changing stuff that can be scary, but beautiful at the same time."
There are, of course, many things that haven't changed: the soaring harmonies, the superb musicianship, the ability to write and select songs that speak to our hearts, the knack for knockout performances, and above all, the desire to push themselves to bring more to the table with each record.
"We have never lost the desire that brought us here in the first place," says Gary. "We don't ever want to bring anything less than our A-game to anything we do."
That hunger for excellence has borne fruit in every aspect of their phenomenal career. They have now sold more than 21 million albums and 25 million digital downloads. They have seen 13 singles hit the top of the charts, spending more than eight months collectively at #1. They have won more than 40 major awards, including seven ACM trophies for “Vocal Group of the Year” and six trophies for CMA “Vocal Group of the Year.” Recently they added a Grand Ole Opry membership, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (which is still yet to be officially put in place) and the prestigious Country Radio Seminar 2012 Artist Humanitarian Award to their list of accomplishments.
It's an amazing track record for a band not much more than a decade in the public eye. In fact, the guys look on this transition period as the perfect segue to the next decade. They paid tribute to their new beginning with their white-themed Flatts Fest Tour.
"The white theme was symbolic of a new beginning for Rascal Flatts," says Joe Don. "It was our way of celebrating a clean slate."
That slate has more than found its way to Changed.
"We looked at each other last year while all this was going on," says Jay, "and said, 'If we're going to keep doing this, we've got to recommit ourselves to do it better, do it stronger, do it harder.' We know we've got a lot left to say."
Nowhere is that more evident than in the album's title track, a compelling and dramatic picture of redemption written by Gary with Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley, with whom he also wrote "Fast Cars and Freedom" and "I Melt." It’s one Gary views as a gift.
"I think I just kind of held the pen and God wrote that one," he says, "but it sums up everything in our lives in the past ten years. It's one of those universal lyrics that everybody has lived some part of."
The public's first glimpse of the project came with its first single, "Banjo," which quickly rose to the upper reaches of the chart. It shows once again the trio's affinity for the unexpected and for music as sheer joy. A celebration of the out-of-the-way, off-the-map getaways that refresh us all, it's got big harmonies, high energy and an appearance by Ilya Toshinsky on the five-stringed instrument that lends the song its title. Of Ilya, one of a host of brilliant Nashville musicians taking part in the project under the direction of co-producer Dann Huff, Gary offers a sentiment in perfect keeping with the track's soaring spirit and down-to-earth roots, "That is the hillbilliest Russian I've ever heard in my life!"
Both songs hint at the extraordinary riches to be found throughout the project. "I feel like some of the best material we've ever cut is on this record," says Joe Don. "'Changed' and 'Banjo' kind of foreshadow all the fun twists and turns, the serious ballads--everything that Rascal Flatts is about is here."
"You can feel the growth and the fact that Rascal Flatts at its very core is on this record," adds Jay. "It’s got some of the most vulnerable and transparent material we've ever cut. Sometimes I feel like over the years we've been pretty light-hearted as a band. We're veterans now, talking about real-life issues, and I'm proud of the fact that we maybe go a little deeper on this record."
Each of the three had a hand in writing for the project. Besides “Changed,” Gary contributed “Great Big Love.” Jay penned "Let It Hurt," a powerful look at facing loss, and Joe Don wrote "Sunrise," an offer to cure heartache "one sunrise at a time."
In addition to the project's 11 songs, an extra track and four bonus tracks are available on a deluxe edition. The guys worked again with co-producer Dann Huff, and together they have crafted an album as rich sonically as it is lyrically.
"Dann can bring out all the elements that make a song great," says Joe Don. "He has the ability to take something that's beautiful and make it even more beautiful."
"And he really pushes us," adds Gary. "He has so many ideas sometimes it's all we can do to keep up with him. He gets very excited about making great music, and that passion inspires us. We have a great time making music with him."
They're agreed that Changed is the best work they've done, and part of that stems from their ability to draw on their long experience.
"We couldn't have made this album any earlier in our career," say Jay. "We had to go through a lot of the stuff to get to this point."
That journey began when Jay and Gary, from the Columbus, Ohio, area, and Joe Don, from Picher, Oklahoma, teamed up in a club in Nashville's Printers Alley. “We knew right away we had something special,” says Jay, “even if we were the only ones who ever got to hear it.”
They weren’t. They quickly earned a record deal and talent, drive, and great song selection did the rest. Their list of hits constitutes one of the great bodies of work in modern country music, with "These Days," "Bless the Broken Road," "What Hurts The Most," "My Wish," "Take Me There" and "Here Comes Goodbye" as just the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. Their performances are state-of-the art, house-rocking extravaganzas, sold-out excursions into musical excitement that have included as opening acts some of this generation's great artists, including Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean.
This year they are undertaking The American Band Tour, with its opening acts offering a great new twist on their impressive touring legacy.
"We rack our brains every year," says Joe Don, "and talk about, 'How is it going to be different from our last tour? How will it be better?' We've wanted to do something with Little Big Town for years. Eli Young and Edens Edge came on board next and it's turned into something really cool. We're really excited."
All of it stems from the magic that happens when their voices unite and the respect with which they view their mission and each other.
“I truly feel like every time the three of us lock into a chorus,” says Gary, “God's hand is in it. I feel blessed to share the stage with Jay and Joe Don.”
"There's never been a method to our madness," adds Joe Don. "We just cut the best songs we can, and through the years we get better at what we do."
Committed to giving back, they are known for their charitable work, which includes raising three million dollars for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville. It's something close to all of their hearts.
"To give back when you're in a position to give seems like a natural thing to do," says Jay. "It's our responsibility as three guys who've been very blessed."
As for the accolades, it may be Opry membership that feels best to them at present.
"It's one of our proudest moments in the world, being part of the Opry family," says Gary. "We've been part of a lot of great things, but this is joining a wonderful family that will live on forever. It's mind-blowing."
It's a fitting tribute to a group that has brought so much to country music and its fans.
Jay, Joe Don and Gary see their latest album as the perfect representation of all the elements that go into the music that has given them so much success.
"Everything is in this big crock pot called Changed," says Gary with a laugh "It's got meat, potatoes, vegetables—all of it. It's fun, it's poignant, and we think the hard work that went into has really paid off. And we’re very glad to take one more big step down the road."
Little Big Town
It takes a perfect storm to make a great album – an audacious mix of tension and release, passion and calm, love and violence.
Hallmarks associated with all true forces of nature, these mighty attributes were exactly what Little Big Town had in their corner as they blew into the studio in late February for the whirlwind recording session that produced their strongest work yet, their aptly titled fifth album, Tornado.
LBT didn’t set out to break any land speed records in the studio. However, considering that the majority of Tornado took just seven days to record, that’s exactly what the recording process felt like to Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook, a group famous for their trademark four-part harmonies.
The elements that would produce Tornado started brewing earlier this year. After doing a bit of soul-searching, the band realized they were ready for a change. Despite a solid 13-year career during which they’ve sold 1.5 million records, racked up multiple Grammy, CMA and ACM nominations, and crafted Top 10 country hits (“Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home” from their platinum 2005 album The Road to Here, and “Little White Church” from their acclaimed 2010 release, The Reason Why), LBT was feeling a little too secure in their time-tested way of doing things in the studio.
They decided to shake things up a little.
The change started with the draft of producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Patty Griffin), who stood in for their longtime collaborator Wayne Kirkpatrick at the boards. “We adore Wayne: he really helped us in the early days when we were trying to define our sound,” Karen says, fondly. “And he’s part of the reason why we’re a band. We love our past records, and we wouldn’t change anything about how we made them, but we wanted to break up our routine for this one and get a little bit out of our comfort zone.”
LBT was already familiar with Joyce’s work, both as a producer and a performer: a noted guitarist, he had played with the band on The Reason Why. However, there’s a big difference between dropping by the studio for a few hours to gig on one track and masterminding an entire album.
If there were any lingering doubts that Joyce was a good fit for the project, they all fell away when the producer showed up to his first meeting with the band brandishing a plan for a recording experience that was unlike anything else they had ever done before.
“Jay was the only guy we talked to who said, ‘I know what I would do with you guys. I’ve loved your other records, but I have some things I’d love to try,’” Karen recalls. “When he talked to us about what he wanted to do, there was no hesitation,” Jimi adds. “He was all there; in Jay’s mind, he had already started working.” The band quickly followed suit, launching into what would become a wonderful cyclone of a recording session. Rehearsals began in late February; a month later, they had recorded the entire album.
Adapting to this swift course of action was admittedly a bit of a shock to the band’s system. The week before entering the studio, LBT was on the road, removed from any kind of preproduction. “It was Sunday night, and we were going into the studio the next morning,” Karen says, “and there were still 25 potential songs that needed to be whittled down. And we needed to figure out who was gonna sing them, and in what key, with what arrangement … We panicked. But when I called Jay, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just show up here tomorrow and we’ll figure it out together.’”
Flying by the seat of their pants was an entirely new way of working for four avowed perfectionists accustomed to a much more conventional recording process. Joyce encouraged them to approach their work with feeling rather than reason. “He really pushed us,” says Kimberly. “We tend to toil over things; we like to rethink and discuss problems. Jay stopped us from doing that. Literally, we would be in the middle of talking something out, and he would tell us to stop thinking and start singing.”
“Less thinking, more singing” became LBT’s unofficial slogan as they followed Joyce’s plan of action, which was new to him as well. “The process wasn’t typical of how Jay works, either,” Jimi explains. “It was exciting to see what would happen. Because of that, there was a great energy all the time in the studio, and I think you can hear that on the record.”
If some of Joyce’s methods were foreign to the band, others were rooted in familiarity. For instance, the producer encouraged LBT to use their road band in the studio. “That ended up being a huge part of the energy and spontaneity that comes across on the album,” Kimberly says. “We have a natural chemistry with those guys,” Phillip adds. “We already loved playing with them on the road, so being with them in the studio made sense. It was amazing how great it felt.”
The team worked together, in one room, with Joyce taping everything, including four days of rehearsals. No recording was off-limits: some practice tracks ended up on the album. “Even if it was a loose version of what we going for, if it had the right vibe, it was used,” Karen says. Wishy-washiness was also stricken from the agenda, Phillip says: “If it didn’t come together fast, then it didn’t come together at all. We’d drop it.”
On the fifth day, the group headed to Nashville’s Sound Emporium to start recording. To keep the sessions feeling organic and relaxed, Joyce asked the band to pretend that they were on tour; each session was treated like a live show. “He told us to come in dressed to go on stage, and to do whatever we normally do before we play a show,” says Karen. “We’d go to dinner and come back laughing with some drinks in us, in a great mood,” Phillip remembers.” And it continued into the studio.
The first point of action was clocking the languid, sexy strains of “Pontoon,” the album’s first single. (“We did it first because we wanted to start out having fun,” Karen says. “There was a psychology to how we did things.”)
A buoyant, light-hearted sing-along, “Pontoon” was written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The song’s presence on the album is a direct result of the band’s conscious decision to include different writers in their process. “We always cut a few outside songs, but this time we wanted to really open it up and see what we could find, no matter where it comes from,” Karen says. Fun songs were a chief priority. “‘Pontoon’ is crazy and silly, but sexy and smart, too. We’d never recorded anything like it.” The gamble paid off: released in April as the album’s first single, “Pontoon” is LBT’s first summertime party hit.
LBT eased through ten more songs during the session. “Front Porch Thing” is a happy anthem about proudly doing as little as humanly possible. “This song takes me back to my first love,” says Kimberly. “It’s playful and spirited and a big ol’ dose of feel-good. It’s so much fun to sing in the live show. We open it up with only vocals and it gets bigger and more rowdy as we go.”
The entire band shares co-writing credits with Lori McKenna on the yearning ballad “Your Side of the Bed,” an evocative inquiry into the mind of a distant lover. “I love that this lyric is so brutally honest,” Karen says. “There are times in a relationship when you allow things to come between you, so much so that it feels like an incredibly long way back to each other. It's a lonely place to be especially when you’re lying right next to someone you love.”
“Tornado” is a wicked threat from writers Natalie Hemby and Delta Maid that deftly compares a scorned woman to a force of nature that the band and its fellow Southerners know all too well. “Natalie played it for us one night and we were like, man, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a chick say, ‘I’m a tornado,’” Karen says of the song, featuring an ominous chorus in which the singer threatens to destroy the house she shares with her wayward man, to “toss it in the air and put it in the ground/Make sure you’re never found.” “Yeah, it’s pretty badass,” Jimi agrees.
“Pavement Ends” and “On Fire Tonight,” which the band wrote with Laird, are balls-out party songs. “Can’t Go Back” sounds like a whispered prayer delivered by a quartet of kind kindred spirits. "The first time I heard it I knew I wanted it on this record,” Jimi says. “It has one of the most beautiful and haunting melodies I've ever heard - one of those songs that feels like it’s washing over you as you listen to it. It’s one of my favorite things we've ever cut."
The album ends with “Night Owl,” a soothing lullaby caringly penned by all four members of the group that promises comfort and love at the end of an oft-traveled road.
The cooing chorus of “Night Owl” was achieved by the band singing into an echo chamber. “ At the studio, there’s a little hole in the wall that you go through to the chamber, where there are microphones set up to catch the echo. We all got inside to sing the ‘who-o-oohs,’” Phillip remembers. (Kimberly and Jimi used the space to create the spooky whistles on “Tornado.” “They had a duel – a whistle-off in the chamber,” Karen jokes.)
“Self Made,” written by Karen and Jimi with Natalie Hemby and Jedd Hughes, was intentionally the last song to be recorded. A forceful testament to the challenges LBT has faced as a band and as individuals – challenges they’ve ultimately transcended – it’s become the band’s working mantra, “so we thought it was a good way to finish,” Karen says.
By the time “Self Made” was recorded, everyone had let down their guard, not to mention their hair, which gives the track extra energy and a special sense of urgency that was felt by everyone involved. “During the session our guitarist Johnny (Duke) asked Jay what advice he had for him, because there’s some amazing guitar work on that song,” Karen remembers. “And Jay’s, like, ‘Release your inner monkey, man!’ He was standing on top of the speakers wearing big Chanel sunglasses - I don’t know where he got them – holding a bullhorn. On the track that made the album, you can hear him counting off: ‘One, two, three - get it, Johnny!’ Jay said his heart was racing when we finished.”
“We all came off that session with our hearts beating out of our chests,” Phillips says. “When Karen and Jimi first played us that song, I instantly gravitated towards it because I love what it said: ‘Born a survivor, like father, like gun.’ It was just cool.”
Beyond being a solid song, Phillip says the creation of “Self Made’ also represented a change in how the band members went about their work: “We were allowing ourselves to be open and creative in the writing process and good stuff was happening. I think we found that we were stretching ourselves and not just doing the same old things we had done before.”
Fond memories of their brief time in the studio notwithstanding, each member of the band is thrilled with the final product. “I think ‘edge’ is a word that gets overused,” Karen says. “But this record does have a raw edge to it.” “It has a really different vibe to it,” Jimi agrees “It doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio right now.”
“There’s a confidence that permeates this album,” says Phillip. “And that applies to the sound of the vocals and the performances; it applies to the lyrics and the ways we’re emoting. We weren’t scared to perform it or say it from our heart. There was no tiptoeing around about it. It was about speaking the message clearly and as loudly as you can.”
For a band of Little Big Town’s stature, experience and esteem, this level of transparency and the decision to take the road less traveled into the studio are bold moves - ones they’re proud to have taken. “I read a quote recently that said you should do something everyday that scares you – it’s good for you,” Phillip says. “Well, at the beginning we were scared and nervous. But we would have never dreamed that it would come together so beautifully.”
Indeed, both gorgeous and fearsome, Tornado is nothing short of a force of nature.
People believe in Kristen Kelly. Candid and down to earth, with a room-filling smile and a voice that echoes the heart of what she sings, Kristen laughs as she describes her music as “a little more grease than polish.” And that grease is an exciting mix, distilled from her country, blues, and classic rock influences into a passionate, playful, often sexy, and always heartfelt reflection of real ...life as she knows it.
“I have a hard time singing or writing about something I can’t relate to,” she says, and that philosophy is front and center on her Arista Nashville debut album, co-produced by nine-time CMA Award-winning producer Tony Brown and two-time GRAMMY®-winning songwriter Paul Overstreet.
“Paul got the ball rolling,” Kristen says. A chance meeting at a 2010 benefit concert impressed Overstreet enough to invite her to write with him, sparking a chain of events that ultimately led to her record deal. But Kristen was far from an “overnight” discovery.
Born in Waco, Texas, Kristen Kelly grew up in the country, living on 10 acres in small-town Lorena, Texas. “You blink, you miss it,” she smiles. She credits her outdoorsy, adventurous spirit in adult life to those days of “simple country living.”
She sang in talent shows and high school choir, and by middle school had taken an interest in poetry, beginning the foundation for the songwriting that would emerge years later. “I grew up in love with music,” Kristen recalls. Her late grandfather, Sterling Kelly, was a country musician – “I still have 45s of him and his band” – while her dad helped instill her affinity for classic rock, as well as her determination. “He’s a simple, hard-working man who never quits – and I think that’s where I get some of my ‘workaholic’ from is him.” Along the way, she adds, “I fell in love with the blues.”
While bartending in 2001, an impromptu performance earned Kristen an on-the-spot invitation to sing with a regional classic-rock cover band. That night launched a three-year part-time gig with the band as she moved closer to a life in music, co-writing her first song (“Down in Flames” with Brandon Jenkins and Stoney LaRue) in 2004, the same year she began a two-year music degree at Waco’s McLennan Community College.
In her final semester, a friend asked her to sing harmony on songs he was recording. They began writing and recording with Kristen on lead vocals, as well, resulting in their self-released album, The Highway Is My Home, as Modern Day Drifters. Initially a duo, they added a few players to flesh-out their live sound, and the act earned airplay and acclaim around Texas. But with the departure of her original partner in late 2008, Kristen took the reins and recorded her debut under the banner Kristen Kelly & The Modern Day Drifters, producing all but one song on 2010’s independent Placekeeper.
Her musical style embraces influences ranging from Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and Bob Seger to singer/songwriter Patty Griffin to the blues and soul of Ray Charles, Susan Tedeschi, and Bonnie Raitt, while her country roots were shaped in part by the sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I grew up listening to The Judds and Reba and George Strait and Willie Nelson,” she says, adding that her biggest influence is Merle Haggard.
“I think I’m such a big fan of Merle Haggard’s music and his songwriting because it’s simple. I’ve always believed that country music was three chords and the truth, and that’s more or less what he did – and what all the great blues musicians did.”
Kristen mines her own truth with a lighthearted look at love gone awry on the groove-filled “Ex-Old Man,” while the deeply personal “Feeling Nothing” is the culmination of lyric lines that had been in her thoughts for years. “There stands a man I used to love / his hands my skin they used to touch / the very hands that once held my heart” begins the ballad of time-won healing.
“I’m a happy person,” Kristen offers, “but what I write has a lot of angst and realness to it, whether it’s something that I’ve personally experienced or somebody close to me has experienced. To be able to give voice to pain that I’ve felt, to be able to say ‘it hurts’ when it hurts, is part of my music. And if something I’ve gone through helps somebody get through something in their life, then I think that’s the ultimate reward for being a survivor.”
From the pen of acclaimed singer/songwriter Matraca Berg, Kristen pours out the emotional restlessness of a strained-but-committed relationship in another album highlight, “How Leaving Feels.” “I think maybe every man and woman at some point has wanted to know what leaving would feel like,” she says, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gonna do it.”
But there are times when leaving has its place, and Kristen’s dynamic vocals soar on the rocked-out blues of “Turn and Face Memphis,” a spirited kiss-off to a my-way-or-the-highway ultimatum that mirrors a time in her own life.
The strength and passion of her delivery further shine on the soulfully sexy “He Loves to Make Me Cry,” which she wrote with Overstreet and Even Stevens. But there’s another Overstreet co-write, “Signs,” that speaks to an important side of Kristen Kelly. While the lyric is about a relationship, there’s a deeper meaning that reflects some of the inspiration that brought her to this point in her career.
“There’ve been little signs along the way,” she shares. “I’m no holy roller, but it’s like, ‘All right, I’m listening.’ I see it, I hear it, I feel that little nudge – and I’m gonna go with it.”
That faith is at the heart of Kristen Kelly, and it’s visible on the inside of her right wrist, with a tattoo of the word “Believe.”
“If you’ve got a dream, keep dreaming,” she says. “Believe. Ten years ago, I’d have never dreamed I’d be sitting right here, but I am.”
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Thu, June 6
Fri, June 7
Sat, June 8
Sun, June 9
Tue, June 11
Sun, June 16
Mon, June 17
Tue, June 18
Sat, June 22
Wed, July 10