Country Music's Gateway Drug


Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland

Sugarland was born and bred on the Atlanta music scene, where Kristian Bush played in Billy Pilgrim (which released two critically-acclaimed albums on Atlantic Records in the early ’90s) and Jennifer Nettles fronted Soul Miner’s Daughter. But the glossy, polished sheen of their sound isn’t all that far removed from any number of country acts to emerge from Nashville’s Music Row.

Yet the dynamic duo has found a way to incorporate influences ranging from pop and rock to urban music, attracting hordes of fans who normally wouldn’t be caught dead at a country concert. The result is a string of #1 singles (including three from 2008’s Love On The Inside alone), a slew of awards (including two Grammys, an ACM and a CMT Award in 2009), and multi-platinum record sales in an industry struggling to survive both a sagging economy and the era of downloading.

We recently spoke with Bush as he was promoting the band’s Christmas album, Gold & Green, to find out why Sugarland’s sound is hard for so many to resist.

It’s been a pretty crazy ride for Sugarland these past five years. What have been the biggest rewards of watching all your hard work finally come to fruition?

The first is that slow dawning realization that hard work actually pays off. There’s also the wisdom that comes with experience. For many years I was the kid that wasn’t old enough, and everyone turned and headed the other way because it mattered that you had experience. So I feel the joy of it every day because I can really appreciate what’s happening now. I’m always in my skin, soaking it up. It makes for a very rich life.

You’d obviously been active on the Atlanta scene long before you and Jennifer hooked up. Did you always aspire to this level of success?

No, I’m pretty sure this is a dream. I remember the goals as they kept getting bigger and thinking, “Man, I would just love to get paid to make records!” Then I had the crazy idea that I needed to be on a major label, because the Indigo Girls and Michelle Malone had gotten a contract and these were people on the local scene that we could reach out and touch. Then when [Billy Pilgrim] did get a deal, it became about not getting flushed down the drain because Hootie got all the attention. I realized later that we were signed to that label primarily for critic cred, but I thought we were the next big thing! [Laughs]

Did you know when you started playing with Jennifer that the chemistry you guys had was special?

There are a lot of pieces to the combination lock that you need to have in order to have a shot at succeeding. We hadn’t really put them all together yet, but they were there. It was a learning lesson because [Billy Pilgrim partner] Andrew Hyra had such a good voice, but he wasn’t very interested in success. After we stopped working together, I wasn’t willing to work with anyone unless they were willing to succeed. That’s what comes with being in your thirties.

Jennifer Nettles

Jennifer Nettles

I’m not much of a country fan myself, but I find your music impossible to resist. What do you think is it about Sugarland that makes the music resonate so strongly with people?

I think country music is creating a lifestyle that goes with it. Our music doesn’t challenge that lifestyle, but it also doesn’t acknowledge it as a requirement in order to listen to the music. We’re moving away from requiring [you to be] part of a subculture in order to be to be associated with a music genre. Whether you’re 12 or 45, you can have Metallica, Jay-Z and Sugarland on your iPod and not be considered weird. I think you’re exactly right to say that we’re playing music that will appeal to a lot of folks. Country music is supporting us and, in this kind of market, that support is appreciated. In a lot of ways we’re championed as the doorman for country music. We’ll open the gateway!

It’s interesting hat you’ve been embraced by the country music establishment, yet your roots clearly include a lot of rock, folk and even urban music influences. Can you talk about that?

Sure. We actually really enjoy footnoting everything. We’re starting to really come to terms with who is influencing us, and not shying away from that. If I had to play my iPod right now, you would have a laugh a minute! I’m a gigantic U2 fan, I’m digging the new Pearl Jam single, and I really love They Might Be Giants, the way they combine clever lyrics with primarily pop melodies. No matter what you say about them you can’t get their songs out of your head, and they make me—even at the age of 37—want to dance. What can I learn from that? I think in Sugarland we’re consumers of music to such a huge degree, and this stuff matters to us. What we try to do is to translate all that into country music, because this is the only genre of music nowadays where you can be openly sentimental.

Kristian Bush

Kristian Bush

Do you ever find yourself having to reign in your more experimental inclinations to maintain a distinctive Sugarland sound?

There’s a certain amount of politics that I don’t like to go into because it seems to be a flash bed of controversy in country music.

So it’s more about the lyrical content than the musical direction?

With our musical direction we’re in a very interesting place. No matter what we do, Jennifer sings it with a country flavor, so I can throw a very wide palette of influences in front of you. I also think that the songs that we write are very emotional. You have to be honest.

The band’s sound seems to be getting bigger and more expansive as your fan base grows. Have there ever been any discussions about doing a more stripped-down album that returns to your folksy roots?

I think we can do both, because we get a lot of creative leeway from our fans. There was a song called “Stay” that we did and that was literally just me on guitar and Jennifer singing. It became a big radio hit [not to mention their first platinum single], which was really improbable based on the fact that country music requires a 5-minute acoustic ballad to be within their comfort range. We’ve been invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry, and that’s something we’d really like to do. So we’ve basically been given permission to go in any direction we want, and that’s almost like a fairy tale for an artist. But if you had to pick a couple of people with the highest respect for that kind of privilege, it would be the two of us.

 2009’s Live On The Inside was one of the better live CD/DVDs I’ve heard or seen. What was the intent behind releasing that?

Thank you! We really liked our show and knew that we weren’t gonna get to all the cities we wanted to play, so we thought this would be a great idea to spread the word. The label didn’t help us out with it and we only had enough money to record one show, so we recorded it from as many camera angles as we could. We approached the major TV networks to see if they were interested and ABC said yes. We were shocked and excited, so then the label decided to put it out as a CD and it became a part of the release cycle. We added the DVD because we’re very conscientious of our fans spending their hard-earned money, and we want to give them some value-added content.

What’s coming up next for the band?

Our tour ended in October and then we just came back to Atlanta and crawled in a hole. The next thing on the horizon will likely be recording a new album, and then we’ll go on tour next year, maybe in April or May, and then go back to Europe.

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