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Published: Friday, 5/11/2007

Better days for Little Big Town


Phillip Sweet, Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook, and Kimberly Roads climb aboard the bus with big smiles on their faces. Hours later, the four, known as Little Big Town, will be taking the stage to open for Martina McBride.

They are touring with one of the biggest names in country music, but there's no back-patting - only wide-eyed awe.

"Man, the food is great on the Martina McBride tour," Westbrook says with a big grin.

Little Big Town recently celebrated the platinum certification of their album, "The Road to Here," for sales of more than 1 million copies.

Tuesday night they will be in Las Vegas, nominated for Top Vocal Group and Top New Duo or Vocal Group at the Academy of Country Music Awards. They will play their current single, "A Little More You." It will be a chance to perform for million of viewers, but it will also be a chance to show off before their fellow country music stars.

"It's a mixture of nervousness and excitement. You want to impress your peers," Sweet says. "You want them to like what you do. But you get up there and sometimes feel like, 'Oh my gosh, how did we get here?' "

How they got here is a long - and sometimes sad - story. Fairchild and Roads were college buddies at Samford University in Alabama. Westbrook was also a friend, and Sweet came along later, eventually joining the other three in singing and songwriting sessions in the living room of Roads' home.

Initially, there was a record deal with Mercury Records, then Sony's Monument Records. Those deals fell apart, but career difficulties were the least of their problems. Westbrook's father died, Sweet got divorced, Fairchild got divorced, and Roads' husband, Steven, died of a heart attack at age 41.

But through it all, the bonds of friendship bonds grew.

"Like any kind of friendship, when you walk through the hardest and best times, it's natural to come closer," Westbrook says.

Along with the personal struggles, there were financial difficulties. It's a common misconception for fans to believe that when an artist or group makes it to radio, the money starts to roll in. The reality is that almost all the money from a first album is returned to the label to pay production and marketing expenses. The money eventually comes when contracts are reworked for the second and third albums - if a label sticks it out that long.

"People think whenever you make it on CMT that you're a millionaire," Fairchild says.

By any measure, "The Road to Here" has been a success, even more remarkable given that it was released by an independent label, Equity Music Group. "Boondocks" was a top-10 smash that put Little Big Town on the map, but the next single off the album, "Bring It on Home," was an even bigger radio hit. The group followed with "Good as Gone," and "A Little More You" is enjoying a steady rise on the charts.

The second album is a work in progress. The group tours about four days a week, then heads to the studio to nail down the tracks for the record. One of the advantages of being on an independent label - especially one fronted by artist Clint Black - is not being forced to produce and release a new album yearly. In October, it will be two years since "The Road to Here" arrived in stores.

"We're about halfway through the new CD," Fairchild says. "If it's ready by the fall, we'll put it out. If not, we'll put it out the first of the year. We don't have any pressure on us, but we'd love to get it to the fans by the fall."

On "The Road to Here," many of the songs were written during the difficult times. This time around, life is going well. Westbrook and Fairchild married in May, 2006. Roads married longtime friend Stephen Schlapman in November and is expecting a baby in late summer. And not to be outdone by his friends, Sweet got married two months ago.

"We thought we'd be writing a lot of happy songs, but we're not," Fairchild says. "It's not going to be an all-happy CD/record, because that's not life. There are painful moments in life too."

Yes, there are painful memories for each member of LBT, as their fans call them. But those memories are tucked away, not to be forgotten, but to be drawn upon as a source of strength when the road gets a little rocky. Even though he's one of the quiet ones in the group, Sweet sums up nicely the road they are on.

"It's a pretty sweet time for us right now," he says.

Contact Brian Dugger at: bdugger@theblade.com.

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