If the 1,032 miles between Cherokee Village and Turtle River, Minn., seems like a big distance, it's really nothing at all compared to the miles that singer/songwriter Phillip Sweet has traveled since graduating from Highland High School in 1992.
Sweet and his bandmates in Little Big Town (Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads and Jimi Westbrook) rolled into Turtle River, a couple of hours north of Minneapolis, June 23 to play yet another date on what seems like an endless tour to support the group's second album, The Road To Here.
"We are having a blast on this tour. We're just trying to take in every moment," Sweet said. "We've been touring pretty hard since 'Boondocks' (the first single off The Road To Here) came out last year, and it seems like we're averaging about three days home a month. It's unbelievable, but it's everything we've worked for, and we're excited to be out here doing shows."
If three days off the road a month doesn't seem like a whole lot, when you consider the kind of white-hot shooting star that Little Big Town is currently riding, it's a wonder they have any down time at all.
After all, The Road To Here (on the Equity Music Group label) currently sits atop the Billboard Independent Albums chart for the sixth week in a row, having been certified Gold, and the album seems intent on staying hot long enough to reach Platinum status in the near future. The album is also stationed at number 14 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, and after the lead single "Boondocks" cracked the Top 10 Singles chart, the follow-up, "Bring It On Home" is at number 16 and still climbing.
Little Big Town also garnered a pair of award nominations from the Academy of Country Music (ACM), one for Top New Duo or Vocal Group, and the other for Top Vocal Group. This in addition to being nominated for the Group/Duo Video of the Year for "Boondocks" at the Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards. "Boondocks" hit number one on the CMT Top 20 Countdown, and remains in heavy rotation on the channel.
All pretty heady stuff for a simple country boy from Sharp County.
And while there's certainly no roadmap on how to go from Cherokee Village to the bright lights of Nashville stardom, Sweet has nevertheless managed to find his own path while remaining firmly in touch with where it all began.
"I think about that sometimes. I think about that beautiful town I grew up in. I wish I could get back there more often, because it is such a beautiful place," he said. "I just have wonderful memories of people that were very supportive. And you know, whenever I would state my dreams back there, like, 'Hey, I want to play music for a living,' they were all so supportive. When I'd play at the Country Music Jubilee (in Ozark Acres) there, all my friends would come out, and it was great. I just believed in my dream and the people there were behind me all the way."
After leaving Sharp County, Sweet ended up at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro for a couple of years on a vocal scholarship. But as is the case for any singer/songwriter wanting to make a mark in country music, Nashville, Tenn., would become the ultimate destination for Sweet.
"I graduated from Highland and then went to college for a year or so, and then moved to Little Rock and stayed there for about a year, and then I was off to Nashville. I moved there in '97," Sweet said. "I knew like one person there, but that one person introduced me to a guy named Joe Hogue, who I wrote with, and he introduced me to Karen and Kimberley. So it's really interesting how it played out. I had only been in Nashville for about a year before I met the people that would make up Little Big Town. And after we all four met, that's when things really started happening. We signed our first record deal in '99 with Mercury. So we've been together for about seven and a half years."
And those seven-plus years were not without the usual amount of heartache that any band experiences on the way to discovery.
While Sweet is fiercely proud of the first album Little Big Town recorded, reviews of the disc were less than kind and when the label downsized, Little Big Town was caught in the backlash and the group was dropped.
"When we were there (Mercury) it was a major company, and they had a lot riding on us. They signed us and wanted us to be a success, but I think there were just too many chefs in the kitchen," Sweet said. "A lot of things were done by committee, and you had so many other people's ideas in on it that, in some capacity, the song is going to get compromised a little bit. It's a tough spot to be in when it's your first record and you're on a major label. You try to just please the label and go along with things. I'm proud of our first record. For whatever reason, it just didn't connect with a mass amount of people. It wasn't a commercial success, but it was such a learning process for us."
Holding on to a strong belief in themselves, Little Big Town managed to fight the forces that have torn countless bands apart and stay the course, waiting for a chance to prove themselves again.
"We were making this album (The Road To Here) without a record deal. We had to unite as a band. For this record, we really had to believe in ourselves. We all knew that we had something to say and we just believed it was special. For us it was truly a journey," said Sweet. "And then Equity came along. It was really kind of mysterious the way the whole thing happened. We just kept ourselves strong. We're a family. We held each other up through our personal trials and our professional trials, so it was beautiful the way things paid off. To watch the way things have taken off last year and this year, it's been amazing. It's literally given us a career."
A career in the kind of music that surrounded Sweet as a musician growing up in Cherokee Village.
"I loved all kinds of music, and I got to play a lot of country music with my mom in the theater, so I was influenced by guys like Steve Warner and Vince Gill, you know those guys that could do everything. They could play their guitars and sing the songs they wrote. Those type of guys, and guys like Willie Nelson, who wrote songs for other artists as well as themselves. And Kris Kristofferson I liked. And even the blues, guys like Ray Charles," Sweet said. "And Elvis. He didn't write his own songs, but I was just influenced by so many things. And harmony bands like Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the Eagles. I still listen to the Eagles. I love their music, and I think that's what people are finding out about us. We do some things that take them back a little bit, something that sounds familiar, but yet is also fresh and new."
Soaking up various forms of music while in high school came easily to Sweet, thanks to his part-time job as a DJ at radio station KOOL 104.7
"When I worked at the radio station there, I loved to play all those classic oldies," he said. "When I heard Stephen Stills' guitar sound I thought, 'yeah, that's how a guitar is supposed to sound.' And all that experience of being around that music, it all kind of carried over. So I was able to be a kid but still be creative. I worked with John Shields at the station. They gave me a job back when it was AM 1570, and then they switched over to FM. My first jobs in Nashville were working at radio stations just to make ends meet. Those experiences really helped me stay around music and play music."
And while he probably only dreamed it as a teenager spinning records on the weekend, Sweet was destined to experience the thrill of a lifetime when he and Little Big Town played on The Tonight Show April 17.
"That was a dream come true. And to meet Jay Leno, he's such a super nice guy," said Sweet. "The whole crew at that studio is phenomenal. They make things go so smooth. It was so fun. To see Terry Bradshaw and Jim Cramer (host of CNBC's Mad Money), who were on the show that night, along with Jay Leno bop along to our song, was like 'Wow! Is this really real?' It was really fun."
And those notable celebs are not the only people who have been bopping along to 'Boondocks' these days. It seems as though the song has found its place in the hearts of country music fans all across the globe.
"The people responded to that song in commanding fashion. It, for whatever reason, resonated with them. It says everything about where I grew up, in Cherokee Village, you know," Sweet said. "That's the boondocks, baby. And that's what we wrote that song about. We wanted it to be pure and let people know where we were. The people made that song a success. They called the radio stations and CMT, and got involved, wanting to see the video."
Little Big Town knew they had a monster on their hands before the song was even played on the radio once, according to Sweet.
"It's really a state of mind, that song is. Whether we're in New York or Maine, where we were a couple of days ago, people love country music and respond to 'Boondocks,' he said. "But we were in Afghanistan in 2004 before 'Boondocks' was even released, and the soldiers there told us that song was a hit. They loved it. We always believed there was something about it. I'll never get tired of signing that song; it's our heart and soul."
And don't expect Sweet to get tired of hearing the sell-out crowds watching Little Big Town in concert sing the song, either.
"We were opening for Keith Urban, it was our first arena show we did with him and there were about 10,000 people there," he said. "We get to 'Boondocks' and the whole crowd starts standing up. They knew the song. When you've got an arena full of people signing your song back to you ... we're up there on stage looking at each other as we're performing, going, 'Gosh, is this really happening?' That was a very magical moment that we'll all remember."
With a hot album and two popular singles to promote, life on the road figures to take up a big chunk of Little Big Town's time for the foreseeable future.
"We've gotten to open for so many great artists the past year and this year, and now we're doing some shows of our own, headlining clubs and fairs and festivals," Sweet said. "We're doing a few shows this summer with Kenny Chesney, which is unbelievable, and then we did that tour with Keith Urban last November, that was a big break for us. We've done some shows with Alan Jackson, and in the fall we're going to do some more dates with him. And then we're going to do some dates with Montgomery Gentry and a handful more dates with Keith Urban. I would really like to get back home and do a big show around Cherokee Village, but our calendar is just so filled up right now, we just don't have any holes in it."
Although it may be awhile before Little Big Town plays a show in the Tri-County area, Sweet's old stomping grounds are never far from sight, no matter the distance that separates him from home.
"Coming from a town like Cherokee Village, you know there's not a lot of people there, but the quality of people in that town gave me a foundation I'll always be thankful for," said Sweet. "But the sky's the limit for us. When we started this, we had certain goals in mind, like to pay the mortgage, to have health insurance and a car that will start in the rain, or a car at all, but all we ever wanted was to make music to pay our bills, and we just want to continue to play music. We'll always be thankful and will always remember what's gotten us this far. It's about being true, and that is something we'll never forget. We understand this can be a fleeting kind of thing, and we want to be around for awhile making music."