Who Is Country's Fleetwood Mac? Lady Antebellum vs. Little Big Town
"Lady Antebellum is like the hillbilly Fleetwood Mac," inebriated host Kid Rock opined from Nashville's CMT Music Awards stage back in June. "Except I suspect they don't do drugs or sleep with each other." Ba dum-bum. Except maybe Kid could've added that the trio also doesn't sound much like Fleetwood Mac ever did, unless the mere fact of relying on male-female harmonies, plus a certain vague throwback mellow-gold atmosphere and architectural production touches (some of which are quite beautiful), count. Truth is, they're not even the most Mac-like act on the country charts (and not just because the Dixie Chicks had a No. 2 country hit with a cover of "Landslide" eight years ago). But more on that later.
If inclined, Kid could at least argue that, in terms of sheer popularity and inescapability, Lady A fill a commercial niche congruent to the one Mac filled in 1977. Even though it has several gazillion copies to go before it matches Rumours, Need You Now was still far and away the biggest-selling album of 2010's first half, according to SoundScan eclipsing Justin Bieber's My World 2.0, the runner-up, with 2,355,000 to his 1,387,000. Most of those sales starting with nearly half a million in the first week alone have probably been owed to the genius drunk-dialing title track, which came out as a single way back in August 2009 and immediately ingrained itself more indelibly than any soft-rocking sap in years. It was followed up by another country chart-topper, "American Honey," whose amber waves of grain (or fields of corn?) almost made February feel like May. And then that was followed by the pianofied yacht-country of "Our Kind of Love." But the album's other real standout is the video-but-not-yet-radio hit "Stars Tonight," an undeniably sing-alongable, open-air summer stadium anthem propelled by meaty riffs and gang shouts straight out of the '70s party-rock parking lot, or maybe The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," take your pick.
Beyond that number, though, Need You Now actually comes off less energized than Lady Antebellum's likewise ubiquitous self-titled 2008 debut, the grittier moments of which didn't bother disguising their Matchbox Twenty or Nickelback genes. Which isn't to suggest the current album doesn't have yet more potential hits on it: "Perfect Day" isn't as perfect as, say, Taylor Swift's "The Best Day," but it's bouncy enough. And "Ready to Love Again," the set-closing rebound ballad, is a grower. But Fleetwood Mac? Not really any.
Antebellum, of course, are hardly the only co-ed harmonizers in Nashville these days who, in the '70s, might've made more sense in Los Angeles. There's of course Sugarland, who are huge and who sometimes almost sound New Wave; there are young upstarts like The Harters and Jypsi and Gloriana. And most of all there's Little Big Town, who have been earning Fleetwood Mac comparisons at least since "Bones," from their excellent 2005 breakthrough album The Road to Here, swiped its mood and rhythm directly from "The Chain." The foursome sounded even more startlingly confident and, in "Fine Line" and "Evangeline," possibly even more Mac-like on 2007's A Place to Land, which added moves from The Eagles and The Doobie Brothers and Neil Young into the mix. Both of those L.B.T. albums ranked with the best albums of the years they came out, in any genre.
And now, a couple years after leaving indie Equity Records for Capitol and covering The Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town" with Sugarland, they've put out The Reason Why. " Little White Church," the overwhelming centerpiece, a holy-roller stomp with blues-rock guitars and a woman holding out for her wedding ring, actually preceded the new album by several months. The title track, which opens the set list, starts out subliminally like Tommy James' "I Think We're Alone Now." There are two good train tracks, the louder of which borrows a title ("Runaway Train") from Soul Asylum and closing riff from T. Rex and concerns messing up while escaping out West. "All the Way Down" does do a groovy Fleetwood Mac sway the only noticeable one on the entire record. But the rest is mainly just lush uplift and sweet four-part harmony some a cappella, some bluegrass, most ditching L.B.T.'s earlier foreboding edge and hitching Lady Antebellum's happy ride onto the Adult Contemporary Truck. Perhaps the novelty of being a Fleetwood Mac without Stevie Nicks' witchy voice or Lindsey Buckingham's eccentric guitar, not to mention screwed-up Buckingham-Nicks relationship issues to draw on in their lyrics, is beginning to wear thin. Which means Nashville might have a void to fill.