"We prepare as much as we can, but it's different every year," Phillip Sweet told PEOPLE. "We love the spontaneity of it"

By Kay West
Updated June 16, 2015 04:45 PM
Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty

For the third year in a row, Little Big Town was pulling down double duty during the CMA Music Festival – performing at LP Field on Saturday night and hosting the entire festival for the annual ABC special CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock.

This year, they also welcomed special guests to their sound check Saturday afternoon – middle and high school students participating in Notes for Notes, a nonprofit that designs, equips and staffs after-school recording studios inside Boys & Girls Clubs.

The organization first came to the attention of Karen Fairchild, who is on the board of the Country Music Foundation, a sponsor of Notes for Notes.

“We met the founder, Philip Gilley, a couple of years ago, and he explained to us what they do. They go into existing Boys & Girls Club buildings and set up studios, equipping them with guitars, drums, keyboards, mikes, anything you can think of needed to record music,” she told PEOPLE. “The kids can come in there, create, write songs, play and lay down vocals. We know how music benefits kids – it makes them better students, focuses them and gives them purpose and gives them joy.”

Fairchild, 45, continued, “The CMA Music Festival raises a lot of money, and they give millions away, and so much of it goes to music education. The Foundation Board was so impressed that we got them some money and now they’re going to be in 14 different cities! That’s all because of this festival.”

Since 2006, the CMA Foundation has donated more than $11 million on behalf of CMA Music Fest artists – who donate their time to the event – to local and national music education programs as part of the Music Education Matters initiative. As part of the festival kickoff, Keith Urban was named the CMA Foundation’s ambassador, and in his first official duty he donated 60 guitars to local schools.

After watching sound check from front-and-center seats in a nearly empty stadium, each student met and had their individual photos taken with LBT before squeezing in tight for a group selfie. Then it was back to work for the band.

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It’s not as easy as they make it look. “It’s so different from what we normally do,” Kimberly Schlapman told PEOPLE. “We can sing and put on a show all day long, but when we have to interview someone, that’s a different skill set. It really gives you an appreciation for that job!”

“We prepare as much as we can, but it’s different every year,” Phillip Sweet added. “You never know what’s going to happen, but that’s what makes it fun. We love the spontaneity of it. We just roll with it and try not to mess up.”

However, Fairchild admits they have devised a plan. “We divide and conquer now. We do a few things as a group but primarily we split up. We can cover a lot more ground that way. Jimi [Westbrook] and Phillip take all the good-looking girls and we take all the good-looking guys. The only problem with that plan is there’s only like six females on the big stage and lots of boys so Kimberly and I work a lot harder than they do!”

All the band members agreed that this particular boys club needs more girls. “I feel like there’s an empowering spirit right now, that people are really rallying around the female genre,” Schlapman, 45, said.

“The so-called research that says women don’t want to listen to female artists is so wrong,” said Fairchild. “How can you do research on a genre of music you’re not playing? If you’re playing established women only a few times a day and spinning the new girl in the middle of the night, how can you possibly know that your listeners don’t want to hear it? It’s silly and it’s wrong.”

“We feel like there’s a real sense this year that there’s change coming,” Westbrook, 43, added. “And Philip and I look forward to working harder next year if we get the chance to host again!”

CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock will air on ABC-TV Tuesday, Aug. 4, 8-11 p.m. ET/7-10 p.m. CT.

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