Sorry to be a bummer, people, but we're on the wrong side of Labor Day. Nine months of relentless drizzle are just around the corner. The good news, though, is the Washington State Fair kicks off today and runs through Sept. 22, with 17 days of rodeo, carnival rides and chart-topping pop stars to help savor these last, fleeting days of sunshine.
And really, what better way to stay in a sunny frame of mind than partying with Little Big Town, the harmony-rich country quartet that will bring its infectious summer jam, “Pontoon,” and other hits to the 11,000-seat Western Washington Fair grandstand on Sept. 9?
The formidable foursome – Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook – is enjoying the biggest year of its decade and a half into its run. And recently, Tacoma Weekly caught up with Westbrook to find out how his group plans to build on that momentum.
Tacoma Weekly: You guys are having a pretty big year this year. You had “Tornado” go platinum. You had your first No. 1 song, with “Pontoon.” You snagged a Grammy. Do you have a different perspective reaching this pinnacle 14, 15 years into your run as a band?
Jimi Westbrook: Back when “Boondocks” came out, in 2005, we actually had a platinum record then, too. So it's been quite a few years in between; but it definitely makes us so appreciative of what's goin' on, because we've definitely been on both sides of things.
We're just enjoying the moment; and more than anything we know to do that and to take it all in and just enjoy it, and we're having the time of our lives out here.
TW: Before “Boondocks,” success was pretty gradual for the band. Were there times you doubted you'd reach the level that you've reached?
Westbrook: You know, I don't think we ever did. We felt like, until that point, we just weren't getting the opportunities. But we're pretty stubborn.
Right as “Boondocks” was happening, we had just the prior year gone to our booking agents and those type of people saying, “If you'll just get us gas money, just get us the opportunity to play in front of people, we'll take it,” and we did. We were driving ourselves around in a van, just the four of us. We were settin' up merch, sometimes makin' our own merch. At that point we were making bootleg copies of “Boondocks” and just passin' 'em out 'cause we felt like that was a song that could give us an opportunity. At that point, all we were thinking about was just trying to get out there and get in front of people.
TW: Obviously, you struggled more. But is there anything you miss about the days when you were a band in a van?
Westbrook: Those were such great times. They were hard times; we didn't have a dime to our names, but there is something really cool about that struggle. I think it makes us the band we are today and how close we are, the four of us. … I think of these people as my family, and it definitely has to do with that time period. But I'll say, I'm enjoying it on this side, too. (He laughs.) It's a lot easier to crawl on a bus and let someone else drive you all night long.
TW: “Pontoon” is kind of a different song for you guys. What attracted you to it in the first place?
Westbrook: I think the quirkiness of it. There's a spirit in that song that's just a lot of fun. … Then getting in the studio with Jay Joyce and making that track, he just brought it to another level.
TW: What about the funny viral video for that thing where you have all the all-stars? How did that come about?
Westbrook: A couple of people at our label, I think, had that idea and put that all together. They didn't really tell us what it was gonna be. … All those folks in there are very busy people, so to think that they took the time to do that. And man, it just kind of spawned a whole series of those kinds of things. Then we started getting them from fans. Their families would go out on pontoons and make their own versions. It was just really cool how that kind of all took place and spawned all of that activity.
TW: Obviously, you're pretty busy. But in your down time do you find yourself going on YouTube and looking for those.
Westbrook: Definitely, when that was going on I couldn't help myself but go on. Most of the time people would send them to us. But yeah, you know, that's good late night fodder when you're on a bus and you're rollin' down the road.
TW: Or you can Google yourself.
Westbrook: (He laughs) I try not to do that. I've done it a couple of times, and I'm never happy with the pictures that come up.
TW: What's the focus of your set list this time around?
Westbrook: We're really focusing on this record, on the “Tornado” album. From the moment we were creating in the studio … I couldn't wait to play this record live. There's just such great energy in the songs.
We throw in maybe a cover tune here and there. We've done the Fleetwood Mac moment (“The Chain”) on the CMT Awards. We're throwing that in there, too, so that's a lot of fun. Our whole thing is we love playing live, and we're trying to make a really energetic set.
TW: It's been around a year since “Tornado” came out. Have you had time to start planning the next record? Might you surprise us with some new songs you're trying out?
Westbrook: We're probably gonna go in the studio at the first of next year and start actually making the record. But we have definitely begun writing, and we've had some friends that have come out on the road a few times. We wrote with Lori McKenna again last week; she came out on the road with us, and we had a great time with her. So that's definitely happening now, and it's exciting.
TW: Do you have any song titles, or can you tell us about the direction you might go in?
Westbrook: We're wide open at this point. You kind of try to find those moments that can be a cornerstone piece of a record. We've got some things that we've written that we're really loving; but even on the last record we weren't sure what songs were going to go on that record until we were in the studio; and even late in that process we didn't really know what was going to be the final product. That's one of those things you just kind of have to follow and follow your gut (about) what's working and what's not working. So we'll have to see on that.