Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook may well be the nicest people in country music. And that’s magnified by the fact that as Little Big Town, the foursome also makes some of the genre’s smartest and most progressive music—equal parts Fleetwood Mac, Dream Syndicate and Oak Ridge Boys. Since the two women met at summer choir camp, after which the group caught its first break when Jimmy Buffett tapped them to sing background vocals, LBT has weathered labels closing, the death of a spouse, a slow climb and a bit of controversy, while consistently making fearless choices.

As the hits accumulated—“Boondocks,” “Girl Crush,” “Pontoon,” “Tornado,” “Day Drinking” and now “Better Man”—artists from John Mellencamp to Pharrell Williams reached out to collaborate, Lindsey Buckingham shared an episode of CMT’s Crossroads, and Miranda Lambert tapped them for her yearning (and Vocal Event-winning) “Smoking and Drinking.” LBT have won a pair of Grammys and own the Vocal Group categories at the various country music awards shows—as well as regularly populating the Album, Song and Single categories.

Their latest LP, The Breaker, is easily their strongest work in a career of genre-pushing songs and singles. Since signing with Sandbox Entertainment’s Jason Owen, the group has been turning up in fascinating places—cooking shows, clothing lines and books—but it always remains about the music. With a first-ever residency at the Ryman Auditorium underway, Little Big Town took time out of a busy schedule to assess the strengths, faith, hope and music that have brought them here.

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