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LITTLE BIG TOWN'S "BETTER MAN"

It glistens, right from the first note. The steady ch-ch of the shakers, the choice few guitar notes mingling sailing through keyboard pads. It’s drizzled with individual piano notes splash-landing like raindrops. Lush, slightly leaning and sumptuous, recalling Tango in the Night Fleetwood Mac, the harmonies that follow on the chorus are even more narcotic. But this—no matter how thick and velvety, how deep and musky—is no love song.

“I know… I’m probably better off on my own,” comes the warm earth-n-honey admission from dark-headed Karen Fairchild of Capitol Nashville's Little Big Town, not quite world-weary, but balanced in her recognizing the reality, “than lovin’ a man who didn’t know what he had when he had it…” At this point it is only shakers and the truth, the smooth alto voice lacing through those rare notes. But beyond the realization of over, there is the damage done.

In the receded arrangement—crafted by rocker/producer Jay Joyce—LBT deliver a whisper that lands like a crowbar to the groin: “And I see the permanent damage you did to me…”

See, there’s more to love gone bad or leaving than being gone. Gossamer and feathery, “Better Man” floats through the air; it’s not merely aural juxtaposition, but a reflection of the truth that often keeps women hooked. As that first verse hits its peak, Fairchild follows her confession about the scars – possibly emotional, maybe mental – the close observer can’t see with the truth that strong woman get sucked into bad relationships.

“Never again,” she resolves, then adds the bittersweet admission, “I just wish I could forget when it was magic…”

Reigning Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Vocal Group of the Year Little Big Town have always nudged the artistry envelope with  lead vocal caliber harmony parts and a strong sense of melody. “Girl Crush,” which ignited its own Sapphic undertow controversy, swept the 2015 awards season.

Now there’s “Better Man,” which moves from quiet resolve to a bit of regret, then a tinge of anger and ultimately a triumphant turn. If scorned women getting smart seem alien to Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” ethos, consider the source: Taylor Swift.

The queen of mining personal whitewater and finding revelations that empower not just herself, but women everywhere has taken her gift – and bestowed it upon Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Philip Sweet and Jimi Westerbrook. The co-ed quartet turned the aching rumination on how things go so wrong, the way desire clings and the callow nature of memory long after the relationship’s done into something that serves as a sobering agent in the increasingly two dimension young country permeating country radio.

With a Facebook Live event to kick-off the single (and reveal the unlikely songwriter, who pitched the song herself to Sweet), “Better Man” has all the earmarks of classic Swift: the rising melody, the small details, the swelling chorus and the conversational, confessional tone. While the platinum blond post-country queen still exists in the genre via recurrent airplay, LBT provide a fresh whiff of the earworm sowing songstress.

Though a little late out of the chute for Grammy consideration, look for the song to perform strong come ACM time – and quite possibly crossover. But more importantly, look for the song to encourage women who’ve left bad situations to use it as a reminder of why they left:

Not needing a man who could change his mind at any given minute
And it’s always on your terms, hanging on every careless word
Hoping it might turn sweet again, like it was in the beginning
But your jealousy, I can hear it now.            
You’re talking down to me, like I’d always be around          
You pushed my love away, like it’s some kind of gun
Boy, you never thought I’d run…

It ain’t “Fist City,” but in a world of bromides and good times, “Better Man” offers truth in a thick cloud of harmonies. As the instruments drop out, leaving Fairchild unadorned, the hardest reality rises. Simply, truly, no matter how much she aches, how great the sex or the presents or the conversation, the heroine knows.

And once you know, you can’t not know.

I hold onto this pride, because these days it’s all I have
I gave you my best, and we both know you can’t say that…

From there, it’s a toboggan ride down a hill of musing how great it could have been if only. The pieces looked so promising, and yet, the truth is graver. There is a small moment of musing, which lets that chorus swell—only this final pass, with Fairchild in an almost gospel swoon—for a final head-shaking acceptance.

At a time when country’s rarely serious, Little Big Town have done it again. This time, Jason Owen’s marquee quartet deliver with a little help from their diamond platinum friend. 

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