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How country stars Little Big Town weathered controversy, a changing industry and raising kids together

From left, Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town (Matthew Welch)

For most of its nearly 15 years in country music, the quartet Little Big Town managed to make chart-topping hits without making any headlines.

Then came “Girl Crush,” off 2014’s “Pain Killer.” The song is about being envious of the woman who has the man you want, but the title, and lyrics like “I wanna taste her lips,” had some listeners crying “gay agenda.” A few radio stations reportedly pulled the song, but it didn’t matter: The hypnotic, ’50s-pop-inspired ballad spent 13 weeks atop Billboard’s country chart this summer.

Guitarist and vocalist Jimi Westbrook explained how Little Big Town has stayed together through controversy, industry changes and raising kids.

Country music doesn’t have many bands like you. None of you is more famous than the others — you’re not just a lead singer and a backing band.
We didn’t really want to lock into one person singing lead on the record. We had seen other bands — huge ones, like the Eagles and the Beatles — that had done it before, but it wasn’t something that we had seen in country music. We always believed it could work and we just stuck to our guns.

You guys have been in the business for almost 15 years. What keeps you together?
We function as a whole. That takes laying your ego down, which is sometimes a hard thing to do when you’re in a band. This business is hard, and the personal things that get mixed in with it as well can really take a toll. A lot of times it’s only family that you go through these things with. But with us, we’ve been through it all together and it just keeps making us stronger. Now we’re raising kids together.

Do the kids come on tour?
Oh yeah! Some people kind of raise their eyebrows at it, but I think it’s incredibly well-rounded. They’re seeing a lot of diversity in people, in places and get to experience a lot of different things.

Let’s talk about “Girl Crush.” Why did you choose to make it a single?
I don’t think I’ve heard a song that was written so well in a long time. [The song is one of the few “Pain Killer” tracks the band didn’t write.] There are so many songs that have been written in history, so to come up with an idea and an angle that you haven’t heard before is not an easy task.

There’s speculation that all the fuss was driven by the media.
I think it was blown out of proportion. There were a handful — but just a handful — of stations that were feeling a little backlash from some of their conservative listeners. And they weren’t getting phone calls from the hundreds of other people that were loving hearing it.

To me it seems like another example of how the media pigeonholes country music as more conservative than it is.
Yeah, I feel like there’s a lot of change happening. We’re very accepting, there’s a lot of diversity in the community and in the genre. A lot of people don’t know that, because of these stereotypes that they hang on to.

What did you learn from the whole thing?
We wait till we’re pissed off to say something, and that’s when we speak the loudest. And maybe it shouldn’t be that way. But let’s talk about the things we love, too, and uplift people. That makes society a lot better, more than the complaining and bitching about everything.

Coming soon: The Little Big Townies are ready to release their next single, “Pain Killer,” a pop-country jam. If it reminds you of the beach, there’s a good reason for that. “It’s got a lot of reggae in there, which we haven’t done,” Jimi Westbrook says. “We actually shot the video for this song back in January, in the Virgin Islands.” Keep an eye out for the song and video, out Monday.

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