“We’re going to be the biggest-selling country act of all time.”
That’s a pretty audacious claim, considering the setting. I’m at Orphan Studios, which may be the smallest free-standing building in downtown Decatur, Ga., with a trio of local singer/songwriters who’ve just started a country band. Though all three are music veterans, they’re unlikely candidates for Nashville stardom. They’ve only played a handful of shows together down the street at Eddie’s Attic, don’t have a record deal (or, for that matter, a record), and none of them have stepped so much as a toe inside the fortified walls of commercial country radio.
“I see the faces of my jaded old rock star friends when I tell them [that],” guitarist Kristen Hall continues with a laugh. “And they’re like, “Oh no, you didn’t learn anything!”
Well, that was three years ago, and it turns out Hall and her Sugarland compatriots had actually learned a lot. Like how to entertain a rabid and expanding fanbase with energetic live shows. How to position themselves as the darlings of major label talent scouts. And, most importantly, how to write songs that sounded like country hits.
While they’ve still got a ways to go to catch Alabama’s 73 million-album-mark, that early swagger no longer seems so outrageous. Sugarland’s Grammy-nominated debut, Twice the Speed of Life has been certified double-platinum. They’ve appeared on Good Morning America, The Tonight Show (twice) and almost everything in-between, and opened for some of country music’s biggest names like Reba McEntire, Brooks and Dunn, and Brad Paisley.
Hall left the band at the beginning of 2006, but singer Jennifer Nettles and guitarist/mandolinist Kristian Bush haven’t slowed down as a duo with their sophomore CD, Enjoy the Ride, debuting at #4 on the Billboard charts. It wasn’t until last week, though, that Sugarland’s adventures finally overwhelmed Bush.
He and Nettles were sitting backstage in their dressing room when they were called out for an interview with CNN. Bush is still getting used to the fact that major media outlets are paying attention to his band, but it was nice to see somebody from Atlanta. Then the reporter asked, “How excited are you that you guys are going to be playing Sesame Street?”
“I just about hit the ground,” recalls Bush. “That was the first I heard of it, and our manager was standing behind the camera like, ‘Ooh. I forgot to tell you guys.’ It’s the first time I truly came undone. I’ve held it together through most of this stuff by pure force of will, by pre-planning, by imagining that it’s going to happen and working every day to make that work. But I never imagined Sesame Street, so it cracked me.”
Though certainly not on this scale, all three original members came to Sugarland with some level of success in the music industry. Hall was playing the folk circuit and writing songs for other performers. Nettles was packing out Atlanta clubs fronting rock acts Soul Miner’s Daughter and The Jennifer Nettles Band. “I didn’t have major-label experience like Kristian,” she says, “but I was able to do music for a living for several years, which is all you hope for.”
Bush signed with Atlantic Records when he was 23, as half of Billy Pilgrim, an alternative folk-rock group with moderate national radio play. But after the duo split, he became a software programmer by day, record producer by night. Today, his old fans might be hard-pressed to recognize the rocker—who as recently as 2001 recorded an album of covers from bands like Aztec Camera, The Psychedelic Furs, Echo & The Bunnymen and The db’s—now decked out in leather and a cowboy hat, jumping around on arena stages in support of Kenny Chesney. But anyone who’s met him will recognize the same country-mile-wide smile he’s always worn, even when punching computer keys for a living. And if they listen closely, the earnest, anthemic songs are still there. They’re just wrapped up in the world of Nashville he’s come to fully embrace.
“I was a big R.E.M. fan, a big Replacements fan,” he says. “As I got older, I chased down acoustic guitars and mellowed a little. All of a sudden, Lucinda Williams made me happy and Steve Earle excited me, but no one would play me that stuff on the radio. The alternative stuff in the ’90s was really cool. And now, when I turn on the radio, the songs that sound most like what I like are actually on country stations, which I hadn’t anticipated before. I think the people who are making [country] records and who are allowing the records to be made are fans of singer/songwriters. That’s kind of making a comeback into the country genre, rather than, say, on Top 40 or alternative. The guys who are controlling what goes on country music radio are much more open-minded—and open-formatted—than current CHR music or even current R&B.”
Nettles considers her own journey into country music more of return trip. “I didn’t listen to any country when I was playing with Soul Miner’s Daughter,” she says. “It’s funny. I was exposed to all this music growing up in Douglas, Ga., but I left it for a long while. This has been more of a homecoming. I’m definitely drawing on [those early small-town experiences] for inspiration in my songwriting.”
She’s brought the country and rock worlds together in other ways, too. Her duet with Jon Bon Jovi on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” was a Top 10 hit and “Vocal Event of the Year” at the 2006 Academy of Country Music Awards. The idea originated when Bon Jovi wanted to try his music on the country charts. He originally recorded it with Keith Urban, but realized he needed a woman’s voice. Luke Lewis, the head of Mercury Nashville, suggested Nettles. “I heard the song,” she says, “and thought I could add something to it.”
She and Bush still try to keep up with music outside of the country realm and both said they’d much rather open for Gnarls Barkley than Toby Keith. They also, on a recent tour with Kenny Chesney, tried to convince the singer that he needed to record an Amos Lee song.
“When we were out with him last year, we were trying to turn him on to the first Amos Lee record,” Bush says. “Sometimes Jennifer and I put the split in the headphones on the iPod and kind of jam out. [Recently], we were listening to the new Amos Lee album. There’s a song called ‘Southern Girl.’ We looked at each other while we were listening to it. We took our headphones off at the same time, and said, ‘We’ve gotta play this for Kenny. That would be perfect for him.’ He was funny, but you’d be surprised—he turned to us at some point when we were on tour last year, and he was playing Edie Brickell’s “Circle.” He’s like, ‘Man, you guys should sing this—it’d be a hit.’”
The country world has its advantages, particularly since both Nettles and Bush are married and Bush has two young children. “The lifestyle’s very different,” he says. “The rock world tours behind an album for five or six months straight like my brother’s band [Brandon Bush plays keyboards for Train]—when Train puts out a record, they go on the road for five or six months and then they come home. In country music, you tour on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And then you come home on Sunday, and then you write songs and hang out with your family on Monday and Tuesday. And then you travel out Wednesday. So it’s a very different experience.”
The road isn’t without its difficulty for the new father, though. “The family saw a CMT special last night,” says Bush, in Nashville promoting the record, “and apparently Camille—she’s one and a half—was trying to get the TV to pick her up. Besides breaking my heart into a bajillion pieces, it was really cool. Tucker put it on the TiVo and he just kept watching himself over and over and over again. He thought it was amazing that he was on television.”
But where Bush and Nettles seem to thrive in the center of the current whirlwind, the touring schedule was too much for Hall. She explained her departure in a release to the press: “The requirements of performing on the road do not allow time to focus on relationships with other writers and recording artists essential for me to do what I do best—songwriting.” Unlike most country acts, the members of Sugarland have always written or co-written their own songs. When they first began touring, Bush told me they were treated as something of a novelty at country radio stations because they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. Hall was the only member credited as a writer or co-writer on every track on the debut, but her only contribution to Enjoy the Ride was helping write the signature track, “Sugarland.”
Bush, who penned many of Billy Pilgrim’s best songs, said in those early days, “I had to relearn how to write. Kristen really trained me how to write—and even better, how to write with her. Because, usually Kristen’s writing the bridge about the time you’re writing the first note. She’s going, ‘Aw, man, I’ve got a great bridge for that song you’re about to write.’”
But now, Bush and Nettles both downplay her absence. “I’m not worried about that,” he says, quickly shifting the subject to his natural chemistry with Nettles. “We found that when Jennifer and I sit in a room with another writer—any co-writer—we kind of filter a Sugarland song out of them. Once we figured that out, it was very empowering. The creative collaboration really speeds up a lot, and it becomes a combination of who we are. We’ve leaned on each other pretty deeply for our strengths and encouraged each other to explore different places.”
That Sugarland filter is effective in removing almost all cynicism and negativity from a song. There’s an almost New Age-y aura of positivism and unbridled enthusiasm at the forefront, from the album title to the earnest, down-home lyrics: “I ain’t settling for just getting by / I’ve had enough so-so for the rest of my life / Tired of shooting too low, so raise the bar high / Just enough ain’t enough this time / I ain’t settling anything less than everything.”
“Sure, yeah, that’s totally what we are,” says Bush. “That [description] doesn’t scare me at all. There’s so much stuff rushing around outside now. One of the strange things that happens [with] this kind of ascension in a career is that you learn to hold on to things. There’s a thrill, say, in riding an airplane for the first time or being on a roller coaster for the first time. But you quickly learn once you do it enough that really the thrill is who you’re riding next to.
“The country music genre itself has so many little facets to it that I love—instrumentally, lyrically and even the ethos of it is—it’s pretty inspiring. It allows us to explore communicating belief systems without being heavy-handed. There’s just a lot of people out there like me or like you, and if we can write a song that helps them through their day, that helps me through my day.”
Bush talks a lot of pre-planning and setting goals, and his band has done a steady job of checking them off over the past three years. It’s a much less organic approach than the typical aspiring musicians take, scrapping out a living in clubs and stumbling haphazardly one day into the limelight. Looking back to three years ago, Bush told me exactly how Sugarland was going to get to this unlikely point.
From here, the approach really does seem to be as simple and straightforward as their new album title. And now with just two members, they only have to catch Brooks and Dunn (not quite 30 million records sold) to become the “biggest-selling country duo of all time.” Don’t worry. I’m sure they’ve got a plan.