By Brooks Clark
During her time as an undergraduate in Child and Family Studies at UT, Kimberly Schlapman sang lead on some good old honky-tonk tunes for the Buttermilk Cowboys at Hoo-Rays in the Old City. “‘Rocky Top’ was one of my favorites when I wanted to get a reaction,” she says. “Our version had a little Dolly in it, but really we did our own thing.”
For a couple of days each year, Schlapman’s Vol roots create an issue with her Little Big Town bandmate Jimi Westbrook. “Jimi is a diehard Alabama fan. On that weekend in October, he can hardly look me in the eye,” she says.
During the fifteen years Schlapman has sung four-part harmony with Westbrook, Karen Fairchild, and Phillip Sweet, she has always had a special way of keeping her colleagues happy. “I’ve always cooked for the band,” she says. “It’s how I like to love on people. It’s my passion.”
For the past three seasons, Schlapman has shared her passion on Kimberly’s Simply Southern, her cooking show that airs on the Great American Country network.
She often does field shots the morning of a show, and is inspired to make a certain dish based on the locale. A trip to Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, reminded her of dishes that use gourmet bacon from fellow UT alumnus Allan Benton (’69). A visit to the Comfy Cow in Louisville, Kentucky, inspired her to make salted caramel ice cream. And recently she went trout fishing in East Tennessee. “I thought to myself, everyone loves salmon cakes, so let’s do trout cakes.”
The Big Red Apple to Birmingham
Schlapman grew up in tiny Cornelia, Georgia, home of the Big Red Apple, a 7-foot-tall sculpture erected in 1925 to honor the local apple growers. “It was very blue collar, very rural, very loving,” she says. “It was a wonderful place to grow up.”
Her father, Tolbert, worked for the telephone company. Her mother, Barbara, taught second grade and kindergarten each for fifteen years. “I learned to cook on a stool beside my momma. She is the best cook I ever knew.”
Schlapman also absorbed the cooking ethic from her two grandmothers. “Grandmother Burch made flaky, buttery pie crusts that I am still trying to perfect,” she says. “Grandmother Bramlett exudes nurturing in her cooking. She loves taking care of people. There’s no such thing as bringing too many people to her house. She’ll cook for them all. It’s hard to believe it, but I used to pretend that I had my own cooking show at the kitchen counter.”
Her other passion was singing. Schlapman went to Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, to study music. There, she met and began singing with Fairchild. She also met and fell in love with Steve Roads, a young law student whom she would marry in 1990. When Roads got a job with the general counsel of the UT Medical Center the newlyweds moved to Knoxville, and Schlapman transferred to UT where she earned a degree in family and human development.
Knoxville to Nashville
The couple lived in a small house in South Knoxville. “I started cooking every night,” she says. “He became my guinea pig. It was a tiny little kitchen, and I hardly had room to turn around, but I cooked up a storm.”
Schlapman and Fairchild remained close friends and sang together every summer at the Methodist Conference Center in Lake Junalaska, North Carolina. The two decided to start singing together on a more regular basis, which led to a move to Nashville.
“It took us a long time to find the voice,” says Schlapman. In 1998 they invited Westbrook, a friend of Fairchild’s, to move from Birmingham to join the group. They sang soulful three-part harmony and rehearsed with Gary LeVox and Joe Don Rooney, both of whom later joined the country band Rascal Flatts.
“It sounded like family harmony,” she says. “We kept looking for a year and a half for the sound we wanted. We knew we wanted something big and round and fat, so we needed a big deep male voice to sit on the bottom. Then we found Phillip. We had heard about this soul singer from Arkansas, so we called him. The first time we hit a chorus together, we knew that was exactly the sound we wanted.
“Still, the personalities also had to be right, because you know you will be spending so much time together rehearsing and on the road. We immediately fell in love with him.”
Little Big Town released its first album in 2002. The band’s second album, 2005’s Road to Here, went platinum and produced the top ten singles “Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home.”
Amid that success came a loss for Schlapman, as her husband died of a heart attack.
“I think of him often,” she says. “He was an incredible support to me. He gave me the confidence to go for it. When a roadblock came up, he encouraged me to pump my arms and keep going.”
As the singer grieved, many friends called to offer comfort. One of them was Stephen Schlapman. “We met when he was a stage manager on tour with us,” she says. “He checked up on me, as so many people did. But he never stopped calling, and we fell in love over time.”
They were married in 2006, and Daisy Pearl Schlapman arrived on July 27, 2007.
Daisy is a name Schlapman has always loved, and Pearl was the name of two of her great-grandmothers. When Daisy was born, Schlapman thought of her late husband.
“We had tried for all those years to have a baby and weren’t able to. Daisy was his wedding gift to us.”
In the Little Big Town song “Sober,” Schlapman sings about a desperate need for love: “I tell everybody, if my heart could talk, that’s what it would say. I know what it’s like to lose love and find love again, and I don’t ever want to be without it.”
Photos courtesy of Sandbox Entertainment