When Little Big Town hosted the CMT Music Awards on June 6, reading the cue cards was not the biggest stressor.
The thing that had the four band members most concerned was something they do fairly regularly: their performance. But in this case, it wasn't a typical rendition. They sang their new single, "Summer Fever," publicly for the first time, just hours after Capitol released it to country radio through PlayMPE. If they flubbed a line or two during introductions, no biggie -- it's not what they do for a living. But performing is at the heart of their mission, and doing their first official run-through of a just-recorded song in front of millions tested their resolve.
"It is a bit like looking over the edge, like, 'Oh my God, what's going to happen?'" says group member Karen Fairchild. "But I also kind of thrive on that moment of 'What's going to happen?,' that energy when you're all focused on every little thing that you're doing. It was nerve racking. We had great rehearsals and then one not-so-great rehearsal, and that always kind of makes you go, 'OK, we've got to make sure we got this together.' Luckily, the best performance that we had done was on the CMT Awards."
Between their two-man/two-woman gender breakdown, the gold disco-like orbs hanging overhead and their bright wardrobe for the moment, Little Big Town presented a bit like ABBA that night, appropriate since "Summer Fever" has a distinct throwback attitude.
"It's totally a '70s, '80s vibe, for sure," says co-writer Cary Barlowe ("Sun Daze," "It Don't Hurt Like It Used To").
The rolling funk bass line, the Nile Rodgers-like guitar rhythms and the bittersweet chords that create that atmosphere were all in place when Fairchild strolled into the Rhythm House headquarters in August 2017. The publishing company -- established in 2016 by songwriter-producer Jesse Frasure ("Dirt on My Boots," "Marry Me") with Warner/Chappell and JAY-Z's Roc Nation -- had brought in a number of its songwriter-artists from other locales to experiment with different creative matchups. English songwriter-artist-producer Sam Roman (aka Romans) hooked in with Fairchild and Barlowe in Frasure's office, and Frasure unveiled a very developed foundational track.
"I felt like the band would be into this," remembers Fairchild. "It has a little bit of that Bee Gees influence."
Fairchild had the word "fever" written down, and as they started playing with melodies and syllables, the phrase "Summer Fever" emerged as a complement to the music. Barlowe chipped in "Float that Malibu," which is now the opening line to the pre-chorus, and the rest of the seasonal storyline came quickly.
"We wanted the song to feel very nostalgic and also feel heart-connected to people when you think back about summer loves or that moment when you were seeing people you only see in the summertime, and just that salt in the air," says Fairchild. "That feeling of summer and freedom and no more school -- that was a good feeling."
They are the kinds of experiences people want to relive, and that sense of returning to a good thing was built into "Summer Fever." The chorus makes a couple of rewind references -- "Over and over again on a worn-out speaker" and "Got that soundtrack on repeat" -- while the music itself has an addictive quality that helped the writing crew know they were on to something.
"If you can find a groove and some chord changes that you can loop over and over again while you're writing and you just don't get sick of it, that's always a good start," says Frasure.
They left a space at the end of the day for a solo and built a demo around Fairchild's smoky vocals with the other three writers doing their best LBT harmony approximation. The band members -- Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet -- were still months from doing any recording, so once Fairchild played it for them, they lived with it as they kept accumulating new songs. But it wore well.
"Jimi texted me a few days after we wrote it, like, 'Dude, this song is crazy. I can't stop singing it,' " says Barlowe. "That felt good."
Fairchild and Frasure worked out a short bridge in place of the solo at a later date. While "Summer Fever" simmered among the band members, it stayed in a figurative pile of material until Fairchild dropped by informally at Sandbox Entertainment in the spring to chat with their manager, Jason Owen. He suggested it might be time to start working on the next album, and when he asked what material they were excited about, she reminded him about "Summer Fever." She whipped out the demo again, and the song suddenly became a priority.
"He said, 'What are we doing? We got to take this like right now. It's perfect for right now,' " says Fairchild.
The band asked Frasure and Shane McAnally (Sam Hunt, Old Dominion) to produce for a quick turn-around, but Frasure was leaving town for vacation. He left the demo in the hands of McAnally, who tracked some of the additional instruments on his own, primarily using Little Big Town's road band to insert some humanity into the mix. Drummer Hubert Payne, bass player John Thomassonand slide guitarist Evan Weatherford did their parts at Zac Brown's Southern Ground Recording Studio. After Frasure's vacation, he brought guitarist Akil Thompson to his house to add more energy to the chorus.
The Little Big Town vocalists stacked elaborate background parts in the choruses, mostly leaving Fairchild as a solo voice in the verses. British mix engineer Mike "Spike" Stent (Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga) was brought onboard to achieve the final balance.
"When we were tweaking the mixes, one of the comments that a couple people said was, 'I want more of the wind-in-my-hair vibe,' " says Frasure. "It's funny when I try to decipher what the hell that means, but overall that's kind of the vibe of the song and the track."
Following the CMT Awards launch, "Summer Fever" is now at No. 48 on Country Airplay, adding a sultry freshness to the season's soundtrack. It's intended to mirror the cleansing effect of a trip to the beach, the retreat from reality that a vacation provides and maybe a return to youthful innocence.
"God knows," says Fairchild, "we could all use a little escape."