Danielle Anderson
October 30, 2015 06:55 PM

Country’s hottest group Little Big Town opens up about their life on the road and how they still get goosebumps making music together. Subscribe now for exclusive family photos and an inside look into what makes them work, only in PEOPLE!

Spend a day on tour with Little Big Town‘s Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet and it’s easy to see why their friendship is even tighter than their harmonies.

As the group, who’s been together for 17 years, boarded a speedboat for a ride on Long Island Sound last month, they were all giggling and excited to have a little down time before their gig in Greenwich, Connecticut. Then Fairchild realizes the choppy waters might lead to problems. “If anyone starts feeling sick, we have to stop,” she says. “We don’t want to mess up the show tonight.”

It’s a glimpse at how they take care of each other and why they work so well.

“We’re one big family out here,” Westbrook tells PEOPLE. “And Karen is our natural born leader.”

Over the years, the group has seen each other through many storms – professional setbacks and personal heartbreak – and also celebrated life’s joyous milestones together, like Karen and Jimi’s wedding in 2006.

“We’ve lived so much together that we really are family and always will be,” says Schlapman.

They also clearly still enjoy each other’s company. Despite spending more time together than apart, they all opt to share the back bench of the boat and bust out their phones to capture their moment on the water with a selfie, laughing the whole time.

Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet
Gavin Bond

Success is something they don’t take for granted and that’s part of what bonds them together.

After losing their first record deal in 1999 before ever releasing a song, the group rolled up their sleeves and chased the dream down yet again. Each of them went back to day jobs – Westbrook parked cars, Sweet worked at a liquor store, Fairchild served as an assistant to a Nashville agent and Schlapman waitressed – and played shows on the weekends before finally landing a deal that would lead to their breakout single “Boondocks” in 2005.

But they say it’s those hard times that made their friendship so strong. “To spend all those hours in a van, you have to like each other,” says Fairchild, who adds that logging those miles in close quarters also inspired the group’s policy of requiring an unanimous vote when making decisions.

“If we’re going to drive to Boston from Nashville in a van for $500 and come right back, it had to be all four of us in, not just majority rules,” says Fairchild. “We made a rule from the very beginning that we wouldn’t talk each other into doing something. That would never work.”

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Now, when the group, nominated for five awards at the CMAs on Nov. 4, takes the stage, it’s goosebumps for all four members. “When Karen sings the first few words of ‘Girl Crush’ at a show, it’s hard to hear her over the crowd,” says Schlapman,. We always look at each other like, ‘Holy cow, this is happening!’ We know how special that is because of where we’ve come from.”

In fact, the gang is even branching out with individual projects outside of music.

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Schlapman hosts her own cooking show, Kimberly’s Simply Southern, on GAC, and she has a new line of home goods, Oh Gussie!, at Cracker Barrel. Fairchild recently debuted a rocker-chic fashion line, Fair Child, at EVINE Live. Westbrook and Sweet are also collaborating on a project of their own that they aren’t quite ready to discuss.

“We support each other in everything,” says Sweet. “That’s what families do.”

For more from Little Big Town, check out the PEOPLE Country insert in the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

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