05/29/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
I've seen it come and I've watched it go," as the lyric to a Little Big Town song goes. "The ins and outs and the highs and lows." The two men and two women who make up the hit country band—Jimi Westbrook, Phillip Sweet, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Roads—know those highs and lows intimately. On April 5, 2005, the four were at a radio station in Indianapolis promoting their breakout single "Boondocks" and celebrating their success after years of barely eking out a living when Roads's cell phone rang. Her husband, Steven, a lawyer who'd represented the band in its recording deals, had just suffered a fatal heart attack at 41. Devastated, the four immediately drove home to Nashville.
"When Steven died, I was just completely numb," says Roads, 36. "I didn't want to go on [with the group] at all. I wanted my husband back." But in the months that followed, her bandmates stood by her. "They literally picked me up, cradled me like a mother with a baby," she says. "They were my rock and they made me laugh again, and they brought the dream back alive in me."
The dream has finally been realized for Little Big Town, who are up for Top Vocal Group and Top New Duo or Vocal Group at the Academy of Country Music Awards May 23. Their album The Road to Here has gone gold. They have toured with Keith Urban
and John Mellencamp and will soon open for Kenny Chesney. "We are kind of on a roll here," says Fairchild, 38, but "we are just too afraid it is going to stop."
Who can blame them? The road to success has been paved with heartache. Besides Steven Roads's death, the quartet has seen two divorces (Sweet's and Fairchild's), the end of Westbrook's six-year relationship and the death of his father. But through it all, says Sweet, 32, "when things got hard, we drew closer together, and that was our strength." Agrees Westbrook, 35: "There is a bond between us that is something special."
That bond began to form in 1995 when Fairchild and Roads, who'd first met at college, reunited in Nashville, where both were demo singers. They got the idea to form a band with two men. "That had never been done in country before," says Roads. "Yes, Fleetwood Mac and the Mamas and the Papas popped into our heads, but we wanted our own sound." Westbrook, who had gone to college with Fairchild's husband, joined up with the women in 1998, and later that year, Sweet met them through a mutual friend.
Soon after the band's first performance together in early 1999, they landed a deal with Mercury Records that ended nine months later because of creative differences. Their second shot with a major label came in 2001, but after their 2002 debut—which Roads says the label "imaged very slick, very polished, which is not who we are"—was savaged by critics, they were dropped.
Vowing to stay together, most of the group took odd jobs—construction, telemarketing, parking cars—to survive. Says Roads: "We told our agent, 'If you can get us gas money and a little cash for food, we'll go anywhere anyone will hear us play.'" That often meant driving 24 hours to a gig in a rented van.
Their music, which Roads describes as "a lot of raw harmony" and "a little nostalgic of '70s music," eventually won them a contract with Clint Black's Equity Records in 2003. The future was looking bright again—and then Steven Roads died. Kimberly is still coping with her loss. "I've been seeing a grief counselor who has really helped me," she says. The band's success has also been therapeutic. They were on their tour bus in March when they got word of their two ACM nominations. "We freaked out," says Roads. "We screamed, and then we just sat and looked at each other. There have been tears. But not that day."