Jimi Westbrook from DHS Class of 89

Jimi's night to shine

Sumiton native goes from "boondocks" to the big time
The Daily Mountain Eagle
Published October 05, 2005 9:13 PM CDT

BIRMINGHAM - Tuesday was an unusually busy night at the Barking Kudu in Birmingham. The band on stage played a little differently from the bar's typical rock and roll offerings. Little Big Town is a country group with a hit single called "Boondocks" from its new album, "The Road to Here."

The band celebrated its CD release party with a room full of fans. The audience was definitely digging the whole ensemble, but there was a certain guitar player and vocalist who got the most attention: Dora High School grad Jimi Westbrook.

Westbrook grew up in Sumiton and graduated from Dora High in 1989. He spent his childhood listening to Elvis Presley and Stevie Wonder, playing basketball with his friends, and singing. Around the age of 12, Westbrook joined the church choir. He discovered he had a good voice. Best friend Justin Turner remembered Westbrook as someone with a lot of natural athletic talents but who also had a strong background in music. It was not any surprise to him that he chose the latter.

"He could have taken that [athletic] ability and done something with it, but I think singing and music took hold of him. He's a great writer and singer," Turner said.

The room was packed with family and friends, people who knew Westbrook from school and church, or both. In the middle of the set, singer Karen Fairchild announced that "Boondocks" had reached the Top 20 that day, making it a certifiable hit. The other good news was that they were going on a month-long tour with country music star Keith Urban.

"Who wants to come with us?" Fairchild asked. The audience members screamed their affirmations.

A person who goes to LBT shows whenever he can is Westbrook's brother-in-law, Paul Morgan. He was back stage when the band preformed at the Grand Ole' Opry.

One of the things he likes about the band, aside from the fact that his brother-in-law is one of the front men, is its live performances.

"They're just as good live as they are on the CD," Morgan said.

Equity Music Group representative David Haley agreed. The label signed LBT after it left Sony Music, making this the band's third record deal. Haley said the group's determination to make its own unique sound is something EMG found appealing.

"Of course as a music group and a record label, we have our ideas about marketing concepts and promotional concepts, but there's no one in our group that's trying to tweak the music or guide it in a certain direction. What you hear on this record is LBT 100 percent," Haley said.

LBT's music speaks of Saturday night poker and church on Sunday morning. After Westbrook finished signing autographs and hugging his family, he stepped away for a minute with two of his friends.

The three men stood in the middle of the bar, bowed their heads and prayed. The night was a blessing.

On the back of the tour bus, Westbrook and fellow front man Phillip Sweet casually drank a beer and measured their success by small town values. Westbrook said a childhood spent singing Southern music had a big influence on him.

"To me, the connection [to Sumiton] is with country music," Westbrook said. "It tends to be a lot about family and the people you grew up with and the values you get from a small town."

Sweet said the band's name reflects the small town roots of each of the members.

"It's Southern American music. It's a melting pot of all those influences. Little Big Town just represents that," Sweet said.

LBT's main emphasis is on harmony. Kimberly Roads and Fairchild's voices mesh with the vocals and guitar harmonies of Westbrook and Sweet.

When asked if their Christian roots were in tune with playing in a popular Birmingham bar, the band said it was not a problem for them.

"Our faith doesn't change according to where we are located. Our faith is just as strong as if we're walking into a bar or a church on Sunday morning. We live our lives in a holistic way. We're who we are all the time," Fairchild said.

People questioning LBT about who it is was part of what inspired "Boondocks."

"We were getting questioned a little bit about, 'Are they real,'" Roads said. "We decided that we'd write a song about it and in the song are a lot of examples of things from our home towns."

The song includes references to the tin roof on Westbrook's grandmother's house, which is still in Sumiton.

"I can remember going to sleep and the rain falling on it, just little glimpses," Westbrook said.

Fairchild said working with EMG made controlling the group's image easier than with previous labels.

A big challenge is making sure everyone associated with them stays on the same page.

"It's hard to communicate with the team around you to make sure it stays with your vision," Fairchild said. "On the first record some things were compromised. The images of us became too slick and glossy. We're a blue jeans kind of band."

LBT said Westbrook's family and friends in Sumiton were a big part of the success.

"They are causing a serious groundswell for us, talking about the band and the record," Fairchild said.

"I love those folks. That's the people I grew up with and I'm proud to be from there," Westbrook said.

COPYRIGHT ® 2005 Daily Mountain Eagle, a division of Cleveland Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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