Imagine if a game-changing email from Taylor Swift went to spam. Little Big Town can, because the pop princess wrote one such message and sent it to Phillip Sweet, the quartet’s least reliable member when it comes to timely internet replies. “He’s a horrible responder,” says Karen Fairchild, 47, glancing fondly at Sweet, at 42 the baby of the band: “I love you, but you are.” Fortunately, Sweet eventually did check his mail and saw the offer to record the Swift-penned break-up ballad “Better Man”; the song went on to become the group’s third chart-topping single. “It opened up a brand-new audience for us,” says 47-year-old Kimberly Schlapman. Over very potent fruity cocktails at Catch LA in West Hollywood, we asked the longtime friends and musical soul mates—who also include Jimi Westbrook, 46, Fairchild’s husband for more than a decade—to talk about their new album, The Breaker, their recent Grammys appearance, and being totally, ahem, synced up.
ROUND 1: Passion fruit margaritas for FAIRCHILD and SCHLAPMAN, tequila for SWEET, bourbon for WESTBROOK
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” at the Grammys was phenomenal. Whose idea was that?
KAREN FAIRCHILD: The producers were thinking about us singing an intro for Katy. I always thought it would be beautiful if it were almost folksy and soulful, so we combined those ideas together and slowed it down.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So were you Team Adele or Team Beyoncé?
KIMBERLY SCHLAPMAN: We love them both so much.
FAIRCHILD: I don’t know if we played a record more in our dressing room this year than we did Lemonade. That was our get-hype, get-going music. And I don’t think there was a kinder tribute than what Adele did.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where do you fall when it comes to the Grammys adequately honoring the country genre?
FAIRCHILD: The Grammys have always been good to us. I know in past years that maybe some of the country community didn’t feel like it got its due. But we have a voice in all of music. We have a following that is worldwide. Our tickets just went on sale for Royal Albert Hall in London, and it looks like we’ll be sold out. It’s crazy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Speaking of which, “Girl Crush” now has more than 69 million views on YouTube.
SCHLAPMAN: Holy cow! Oh my stars!
PHILLIP SWEET: That’s crazy. I had no idea.
JIMI WESTBROOK: Cheers to that! [Everyone toasts.]
FAIRCHILD: Get your gimlet up! Giblet?
SCHLAPMAN: Giblet? That’s in chicken.
FAIRCHILD: What’s a gimlet?
SWEET: Isn’t that a drink?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s a vodka gimlet with lime or a gin gimlet with lime.
SCHLAPMAN: Or you can do a chicken giblet. You can fry them and they’re pretty good.
ROUND 2: Strawberry-infused vodka for SCHLAPMAN, more margaritas and tequila for FAIRCHILD and SWEET, more bourbon for WESTBROOK
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “Girl Crush” was such an amazing success story: winning two major Grammys, crossing over to the Hot 100. What did you learn from the experience?
WESTBROOK: The unbelievable beauty of the way that song was written, it reinforced with us to just go with our gut. That’s the lesson this band has held on to and learned.
FAIRCHILD: At the time, a 6/8 ballad beat in country music should not have worked.
SWEET: It was against the odds.
FAIRCHILD: Look back at the songs that made country great: “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “When I Call Your Name”…We’re talking about heartache songs. Thank the good Lord above that we had a shot of putting “Girl Crush” out on radio and now we’re hearing more ballads on radio. I’m not going to say we are responsible for that, but I know that every artist in Nashville has a “Girl Crush” on their record, a song they love so much that they are so passionate about. I hope the song was a stepping-stone for getting back to that.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s talk about your new album, The Breaker. Is it true that you recorded it in a church?
FAIRCHILD: Well, it’s [music producer] Jay Joyce’s studio in East Nashville. I don’t know if he believes in God, but he owns a church.
SCHLAPMAN: We recorded it in the sanctuary, which has a high ceiling. It has incredible acoustics. And since it’s a huge room, we can all be together and make eye contact. Jay is in the middle, like the pastor.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were your hopes for the album going in?
SWEET: It evolved as the process went on. A lot of times there’s a song that feels like the cornerstone of the record. That happened early on in the process for this. Some amazing writers sent us “Free,” and that’s a sentiment that we really wanted to start with—about the love in your life, that the things that matter are your family.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Which song do you think will be the crowd-pleaser?
SWEET: There’s one called “Happy People” that kicks off the record, about how you can’t [rely on] someone else to make you feel happy. It’s a hopeful song, and it’s really perfect for where the world is right now. It seems like we’re in a gigantic swirl of chaos.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Sounds like you just got a little political there.
FAIRCHILD: It depends on what you mean by political. If tolerance and kindness and acceptance and love are political, then I guess we’re political.
SCHLAPMAN: “Better Man” is a crowd-pleaser. The audience has expanded for that because it’s from Taylor Swift—all of her fans want to know, “What? She wrote a song and a country band cut it?”
SWEET: [When we got her email] I was thinking, “Please let it be good. Please let it be good.” [Everyone laughs.] We all fell in love with the melody.
SCHLAPMAN: It’s the first time she’s pitched a song to another artist.
WESTBROOK: We’ve known her since she was knee-high to a grasshopper.
FAIRCHILD: We used to hang out in the dressing room with her at the CMA Awards and play videogames.
SCHLAPMAN: She wrote her high school paper about us!
FAIRCHILD: It was a paper about perseverance, how to keep going. It was pretty cool.
ROUND 3: Water and crispy shrimp hors d’oeuvres for everyone
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was there a song you would say just wrote itself?
FAIRCHILD: “Don’t Die Young.” We’d just lost Jimi’s sister to cancer, and I had come back to Nashville to get together with the girls who wrote “Girl Crush.” It was therapeutic to be in the room and talk about it. Lori McKenna said she had this title, “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old.” That’s what we would say to each other on Panama Beach during spring break.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is there a song on Breaker you’re afraid will be overlooked?
FAIRCHILD: I hope “Beat Up Bible” isn’t. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt sentiment about faith and family. We sang it the other night at the San Antonio Rodeo, and people literally cheered halfway through. It rings true for people right now. They just want to feel some peace. [Looks at Sweet] You got all teary-eyed!
SWEET: Stop it.
FAIRCHILD: A band that cries together stays together.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Speaking of which, have you ever visited that college choir camp where you gals first met before deciding to form a band? What is choir camp, anyway?
SCHLAPMAN: It was an a cappella choir. I got a scholarship. Karen was a year ahead of me in college. I was a freshman.
FAIRCHILD: Did you have to say that?
SCHLAPMAN: She was a year behind me. I was three years older. [Laughs] I’m really not. On the way to choir camp we were sitting back-to-back. We found out we were both from Georgia. We knew the same guy that broke my heart. That started our friendship.
FAIRCHILD: She’s more like my sister. She knows what I want to be buried in: my black Tom Ford dress, my beautiful fringe leather coat, and all the hair extensions in Nashville.
SCHLAPMAN: I’ll make it happen. I’ll also make sure she has false eyelashes. This is how close we are.
FAIRCHILD: For a while, we synced up.
SWEET: Their moon cycles corresponded to one another.
WESTBROOK: There’s your scoop!
SWEET: It’s hard to find firsts with this band, but that’s one right there.
WESTBROOK: Are we on the fourth round or what?
FAIRCHILD: I’m totally sober. It’s the dang truth. It’s three rounds and the truth.