Pop & Hiss

How Little Big Town's 'risky' 'Girl Crush' went from a pajama party to the Grammy Awards

“Let’s be honest: It’s a risky song.”

That’s Liz Rose, one of the songwriters behind Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” talking about the country tune that she said rolled the dice in at least three ways.

First, it’s a ballad — always a gamble at a moment when uptempo material is an easier sell on country radio. Second, it was written for a solo voice, which means it was an odd choice for a group with four singers. Last, and most important, the song uses sensual language to describe a woman’s envy for her ex’s new lover.

“I wanna taste her lips / Yeah, ’cause they taste like you,” Karen Fairchild sings — exhales, really — over a slow-dance guitar lick, “I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume.”

When it was released as a single last year, “Girl Crush” reportedly caused complaints from radio listeners who disapproved of its gay message. Yet the risk clearly paid off: The song went on to top Billboard’s country chart and even crossed over to the pop Hot 100, thanks at least in part to its embrace by listeners happy to hear that message in the song.

Now “Girl Crush” is nominated for several prizes at Monday’s Grammy Awards, including best country song and the coveted song of the year, both of which recognize the tune’s three experienced writers: Rose, an early collaborator of Taylor Swift’s; Hillary Lindsey, who’s penned hits by Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride; and Lori McKenna, also a respected singer with a string of handsome country-folk records to her name.

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To hear how they made “Girl Crush” — and how the song got this far — I got on the phone last week with the women before they made their way to Los Angeles (two from Nashville, one from Massachusetts) for the Grammys. These are excerpts from our conversation.

As professional songwriters, the three of you have enough experience to know how a given tune might perform. What did you predict for “Girl Crush”?

Hillary Lindsey: As many songs as we all write daily, you never know where they’re gonna go. You have no idea if they’re just gonna live on your iPhone forever and never see the light of day, or if they’re gonna get cut.

Lori McKenna: This song took on a life of its own from the second Hillary started singing it. Even the writing of the song was unique in that it was written quickly, and then the first people who heard it, that same day, were the artists who ended up cutting it.

Tell me about hearing Little Big Town’s recorded version for the first time.

Lindsey: We were in the studio doing some vocals with them on another song that we had written. And Karen and Kimberly [Schlapman] said, “Hey, we’ve got a copy of ‘Girl Crush.’ Do y’all wanna hear it?” So they played it on the big, serious studio speakers, and I just remember sitting on the couch and literally almost falling off of it. It just blew my mind. First off, Karen’s voice is insane. And then the sparseness of the track, and the way the drums come in… It’s sultry, it’s sexy, it’s intimate, it’s raw.

McKenna: You couldn’t imagine a better version of it. A lot of times a song will take on so much — you know, the power ballad. But there’s so much held back in this track.

That restraint is key. It forces the listener to really focus on the lyric — which, of course, hasn’t stopped people from disagreeing over what the song is saying. What do you think of that ability to be interpreted different ways? Is that a strength of the song?

McKenna: I think all three of us love songs that give you these details and let the listener sort of paint the rest of the picture in their head. To me, it gives the audience a lot of say in the song. It’s not what they hear; it’s how they’re hearing it. And, yes, sometimes the vision they see is different than what the three of us saw when we were writing it. But who am I to correct someone else’s thought process? To us, it was a new way to write a song about jealousy, a way we hadn’t heard before.

Lindsey: We had no idea that there would be the excitement about it in the controversial way that it came about. But to see everybody just get so behind it, especially in this community… And then it crossed genres as well. To see George Michael and people tweeting about it and all that kind of stuff — that was really exciting to see all these people get behind something that we wrote in our pajamas at Liz’s house at 9 o’clock in the morning.

McKenna: This is what happened: Liz was making eggs, and I said, “I wanna write a song called ‘Girl Crush.’” Hillary walked downstairs and poured a cup of coffee, then she picked up a guitar, which we figured out later was Chris Stapleton’s old guitar, and I repeated, “Let’s write a song called ‘Girl Crush.’” And I’m not kidding you — I swear to God — Hillary sang the first four lines of the song exactly the way they are. Then she looked up at us and said, “You mean like that?” And Liz and I said, “Yes! That’s exactly what we mean.”

But there was absolutely no discussion of what that title means. I said the title and Hillary sang it, and it was that quick. So when people say, “Oh, they thought this through, they knew they were pressing a button,” it’s so funny to the three of us, because there was no conversation about it at all.

Lindsey: I didn’t know that was Chris Stapleton’s guitar. Nobody told me that.

Liz Rose: We’ve always used that guitar. I got it from Stapleton, like, six years ago.

Lindsey: I didn’t know that.

Rose: Maybe more. Ten years ago?

Lindsey: I’m stealing that damn thing.

Is it a big deal for the Grammys to nominate a song written by three women?

Rose: Hell, yeah!

Lindsey: We’re definitely proud of that. That hasn’t been done in… has that ever been done in the history of the Grammys? Three women together on one song? I don’t know.

McKenna: One of the reasons the three of us write together so much is we’re all really good friends. We write with everybody in town, but what we do when we write together is we stay at Liz’s house and we have time together as friends. It’s like girl time as well as writing time. We get so much from the relationship.

Has the success of “Girl Crush” affected the kind of calls you’re getting?

Rose: Before this we had a lot of people reaching out. But I think it may have taken it up a notch. We’re just still careful that we’ve got to stay the three of us and do what we do. Nashville goes in cycles. When there’s a big song, everybody goes, I need a "Wide Open Spaces," you know? Right now it’s: “She needs a ‘Girl Crush.’” But you can’t repeat a song like that.

What about the reverse? Has the attention from someone like George Michael made you think about writing for different artists?

Lindsey: We don’t really sit down and target someone when we’re writing. But, God, that would be amazing if that happened. We’d take it.

Rose: If you know him, tell him we’ll write him a song.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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