He may be better known as one-half of the platinum-selling country music duo Sugarland, but 44-year-old Kristian Bush is a veteran musician whose career dates back to Decatur’s burgeoning folk scene of the late ‘80s.
Born in Sevierville, Tennessee (Dolly Parton’s hometown), Bush moved to Atlanta in 1988 to pursue a Creative Writing degree at Emory. He immersed himself in the local music scene, befriending Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and Michelle Malone. He made a name for himself playing folk-rock alongside singer/songwriter Andrew Hyra, whom he’d originally met in Knoxville, and in the mid 90s, the pair recorded two critically acclaimed albums for Atlantic under the name Billy Pilgrim.
In 2002, Bush connected with fellow Atlanta singer/songwriters Kristen Hall and Jennifer Nettles to form Sugarland, blending elements of folk, Southern rock and country. The band’s multiplatinum debut album, Twice the Speed of Life, dominated country airwaves in late 2004 and 2005 before Hall exited the group. Bush and Nettles continued as a duo and in the past decade, Sugarland has amassed five #1 country singles, sold over 20 million albums and singles and earned multiple CMA, ACM and Grammy® Awards.
In 2011, Sugarland took a hiatus after Nettles gave birth, opening the door for Bush to return to his musical roots in more ways than one. That same year, Kristian and his multi-instrumentalist brother Brandon (former keyboardist for Train) formed a publishing and songwriting collective, Songs of the Architect, to not only publish their own songs and place them, but to provide the same services and mentoring for independent artists and songwriters. Last spring, the Bush brothers scored and produced the music for a new on-air promo for Turner Classic Movies and began collaborating with friends to record Kristian’s soon-to-be-released solo album, Southern Gravity.
We recently caught up with Bush for a lengthy conversation about his musical career.
What was your impression of the Georgia music scene when you came here in the late ‘80s?
When I was in high school, I came down to look at Emory University. My idea was to go to school in a town where the music was blowing up, and Atlanta was in the thick of it. I was a freshman in 1988, and within a month I’d been invited to an album release party for the Indigo Girls. [Their music] sounded one part like East Tennessee, where I’m from, and one part Georgia….and then I heard Michael Stipe’s voice crooning on a song and thought, “Holy crap, that guy’s from my favorite band!” Immediately, I was in. I saw Mr. Crowe’s Garden (aka The Black Crowes), Michelle Malone & Drag the River, Georgia Satellites… I’d never seen anything like it. The scene was so fertile, and people were very sharing with their information. I sought out Amy and Emily and they answered all my questions, like “How do you get a CD manufactured?” Michelle Malone asked if we would like to go on tour with her to New Orleans and Birmingham. I had no idea how to find those clubs or talk to anybody there. But there was this idea that “if one of us succeeds, then all of us succeed.”
You’ve lived in Decatur ever since you finished college. What’s the appeal of that community?
First, it was the expectations of the fans in the community, who set aside a monthly date for when their favorite artist played. I was really driven to make each show different. You’d write the best songs you could and get them together in three weeks, so that when you performed them, the people who came last time would get something different. That money they’re spending pays your rent, so you can write more songs for the next month. It was an incubator for being an artist. You had people older and more successful than you giving you information about how they got there. Then you had people younger than you who were looking at you and learning from you. There were club owners and patrons alike who were participating in the evolution of your art. I couldn’t believe that there were this many awesome bands in this space! I produced What’s Up in the Attic, which was essentially like wrangling cats. (The double album was recorded on Sept. 1, 1992, at Eddie’s Attic, the eponymous listening room in downtown Decatur founded by Eddie Owen. The album included a who’s who of the scene at that time including Billy Pilgrim, Vigilantes of Love, Shawn Mullins, Michelle Malone, Dede Vogt, Caroline Aiken, Wendy Bucklew, Matthew Kahler, Kodac Harrison and several others).
You’ve played all kinds of music, from rock and folk to country and pop. Can you talk about those diverse influences?
The South is a fertile ground for creativity. If you look at James Brown or Otis Redding’s stuff, they’re singing gospel melodies over soul music, which is like [Sugarland] singing country melodies over Southern rock music. So, if you’re from Georgia, you’ve been given permission to experiment because the people before you parted the waters. I’ve never been as free, musically speaking, as I’ve been as a Georgia artist. It is one of the most beautiful feelings to be so embraced by Nashville, America, Europe and even Australia for being who we are.
As a native of the state, it’s been interesting to see Georgia coming to the forefront of country music over the last decade.
It’s strange to know that there are more people in the Top 20 country acts from Georgia than there are from Nashville! Sugarland was probably in the middle of that conversation, but the beginning has Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood and, even before that, Whispering Bill Anderson. When you’re in Georgia, you’re being influenced by a fertile local community, whether it’s Savannah, Macon, Augusta or Atlanta. You can’t help but take that stuff forward. As a country artist, it’s great to have a huge country fan base, but those fans are also fans of urban, gospel, soul and oldies.
Tell me about your new publishing company, Songs of the Architect.
I’ve always had this fantasy that if I could have a record label, I could help out bands the way I was helped out. Then the record business changed, and I watched the bottom line of those things move, and I realized that that is not the best way to help anybody. As I found more and more success with Sugarland, I started to see how the structure of publishing works: A songwriter is either self-published or they have a publisher who collects money for them whenever a song is played on the radio, television or film or sold on a disc or download. I decided to create a publishing company so that it could collect my money. When I realized that I had built all of these roads, I thought, “Why not offer it to my friends,” because I’d already gone through the trouble of figuring out how to do it.
How did you find the bands you’re working with now?
The first thing I did was ask the three or four people who worked for me to bring me their favorite unsigned band without a publishing deal, and I offered them all publishing deals. We’ve got bands like Today the Moon Tomorrow the Sun, Telegram, and some others in the works. I’m so interested in helping these bands and singer-songwriters locally in a way that doesn’t hold them back from making choices to succeed. They may have a great song, and I can take that song and shop it in L.A. or Nashville, or help facilitate getting that song into a TV show or movie. I also have a Decatur studio called The Projector Room, which the whole thing is based around. It’s the clubhouse for Songs of the Architect.
And now you’ve also got a solo album.
Yeah, I’ve been working on it for almost two years, but I didn’t know it was an album when I started working on it. I usually write 10-12 songs a year. We take the best of those songs and make Sugarland records, and back in the day we would make a Billy Pilgrim record. I’ve been on a consistent creative cycle for a long time. But in the last two years, I’ve written about 300 songs, with 300 recordings. When I asked the people I trust about what I should do, they said that I needed to share this music with other people… otherwise I’d get broken-hearted. So I started putting a song out once a week on my website, but not telling many people. This has been going on for a year, so there are 50+ songs up there now. It became a good outlet for these songs, and I’d do liner notes to tell you something about it. Eventually people in the business started to hear the songs. A lot of Sugarland fans don’t even know that I can sing, so it’s fun to watch their faces as they figure this out.
Tell us about assembling a band to support these songs.
The CMA (Country Music Association) organization sponsors a four-person songwriter tour, and asked me to do their European tour. I got a call just before I left asking me to open the Country 2 Country Music Festival in London, at the O2 Arena. I asked, “Just me and my guitar?” They said, “No, you and your band.” I hadn’t put a band together yet, but I said yes anyway. I immediately called my brother Brandon, who had just booked a meeting with local band Larkin Poe, whom I wanted to look at for Songs of the Architect. We met, I wrote a song with them, and we thought they were incredible musicians– very charming and super funny ladies. They left and Brandon said, “They should be in this band!” We decided to put together an all-Georgia band. We went after Tim Smith, a bassist who’d been on the road with Sheryl Crow for a long time, and before that Jellyfish and the Producers. You might know him by his local band, Thing One Thing Two. The girls flew in from Atlanta, and I used my old Billy Pilgrim drummer– who I stole back from Better than Ezra– and that’s my band. (Bush’s old friend, singer/songwrwiter/guitarist Michelle Malone has also joined his band on select tour dates this year).
How do you balance Sugarland and all these other projects as you move forward in your career?
I spend a lot of time thinking about them before I start, so they are balanceable. My solo career and Sugarland can both happen at the same time. My voice and Jennifer’s voice can both be on the same radio stations [without it being a problem]. It was a real eureka moment when I realized that was possible! As for the publishing and the part where I get to be producer/songwriter/mentor, that’s a passion that can unfold at anytime. I try to produce a couple of records a year, and, now that I’m on a bender of continuously writing, I’ll co-write with as many people as I can.
“Trailer Hitch” is the debut single from Kristian Bush’s forthcoming album, Southern Gravity. Bush recently told Rolling Stone Country, “I always say my music should either shake your hips or explode your heart, and if it’s not doing one of those two things, then don’t put it on the album.” “[‘Trailer Hitch’] is a shake-your-hips song. And we have dance moves.”