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Sugarland: Their Amazing Story

A Country Weekly exclusive! Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush tell the inside story about their rise to stardom as they release their new CD, Enjoy the Ride.

Originally published in the Nov. 20, 2006 issue of Country Weekly magazine.

It’s an October Wednesday in Los Angeles, and Sugarland’s Kristian Bush is ironing his own shirt in the Roosevelt Hotel, watching people dressed in various costumes mill about the Mann Chinese Theatre across the street.  In an hour, he has to be downstairs for yet another interview on this three-day stop with Brooks & Dunn, and so he’s multi-tasking, moving nearly at Twice the Speed of Life, you might say, which is what he’s been doing since Sugarland’s first album of that name made them the country’s hottest rising new stars, with three million copies sold in two years and a new album ready to catapult them into chart stratosphere.

“Pardon me while I eat a Luna bar,” he says, unwrapping the traditional woman’s nutrition snack, and speaking through faint crunching sounds. “It’s my daily estrogen intake.”

That’s the way a guy thinks when he’s been surrounded by women for several years–forming the group with singer/songwriting Kristen Hall in Atlanta in 2001, then adding vocal powerhouse Jennifer Nettles, and even picking a female manager, Gail Gellman.  The three musicians had startling energy together, both live and on record. But the introspective Hall left the group earlier this year, finding the road too draining, and thinking she’d be happier moving to Nashville to write songs. That left Bush and Nettles as a duo, and strengthened an already tight bond.

“Musically and nonmusically, we’re friends,” Bush says. “Close friends. Like you’d see us walking down a beach together holding hands. But imagine what we just went through together. A lot of people sexualized us real quick. They assume that Jenny and I are a couple.”

They aren’t, of course.  Bush is husband to wife Jill, and the father of Tucker, 4, and Camille, 1. Nettles is married to Decatur, Ga., club owner Todd Van Sickle, whose Eddie’s Attic gave the band their start.

“But,” as Bush goes on, “we’re a lot alike. We have the same spiritual and moral ground. And we’re both kind of excitable, so if one of us is in an especially emotional mood, then the other one gets there pretty quick. We’re like two little buzzing kids.” 

Jennifer totally agrees.

“Kristian and I are very similar people in many ways,” she says a few days later, phoning from the back of the bus as it pulls into Mountain View, Calif.  “We have our differences, obviously, because we are individuals, but we enjoy each other’s company very much, because we get to talk about our dreams and inspire each other in that way. And when you live together 200 to 300 days out of the year, you’d better like each other’s company, or else! And we definitely have a similar view of what we want this project to do, not only for ourselves and for our families, but holistically in the scheme of the world. We have the same idea of the role of music within our culture and society.”

“This project,” of course, is Sugarland’s sophomore album, Enjoy the Ride, for which they wrote or co-wrote all 11 tracks. It’s no accident that the title continues the fast movement theme of its predecessor, and both Kristian and Jennifer admit they’re surprised at how quickly their career took off, even as people seemed hungry for the positive messages, sassy delivery, organic harmonies and upbeat framework of their music.

“Although it’s been such a whirlwind,” says Jennifer, who speaks so quickly that her sentences run together, “it’s a bit hard to take in, which is one reason why we named this record Enjoy the Ride. Because be careful what you put out there when you name something Twice the Speed of Life.  At this point, we’re comfortable with that pace, of course, but we want to enjoy what we’re doing within that pace.”

While their first single, “Baby Girl,” took an excruciating 34 weeks to reach the Top 5, once it did, there was no stopping them. “Something More” followed up the charts, as did “Just Might (Make Me Believe).” And then came Jennifer’s No. 1 smash with Bon Jovi, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” with an attending CMT  Crossroads performance. That night, Bon Jovi weren’t the only superstars onstage, and Sugarland suddenly had credibility—and record-buying fans–beyond country music. 

Soon there were awards, and big ones: Breakthrough Favorite New Artist (of all genres) at the 2005 American Music Awards, and the Top New Duo/Vocal Group at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards.  Plus, a nomination for Best New Artist in the 2006 Grammys (where former Beatle Paul McCartney complimented them after sound check), and tours with Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, and Brooks & Dunn.  And now they’re enjoying three CMA nominations: Vocal Group, Horizon, and Musical Event for the Bon Jovi collaboration.  

But exactly how did a singer/songwriter group from Atlanta conquer Nashville? And in such short time?

“Well, we didn’t screw it up,” says the self-effacing Luke Lewis, co-chairman of the Universal Music Group Nashville. “Anybody who would have seen them at their showcase would have wanted to sign them. They came in with magical songs, and from not being from Nashville, had a different sound, a unique sound. And all three of them were seasoned songwriters and performers, where a lot of the artists that we sign haven’t had that kind of experience.”

To top it off, Lewis points out, there’s Jennifer’s monster voice, impressive writing and superstar-in-the-making stage presence. “She’s incredible live,” he adds.  “But at the same time, she’s real sensible and grounded, and has had enough hard knocks to not make some of the rookie mistakes that people are prone to make.”

Songwriter Lisa Carver, who co-wrote four songs with Kristian and Jennifer on the new album, knows what Lewis means. “She’s brilliant, and such a star. And even though the band is young, they’re seasoned pros. They have an amazing chemistry onstage.  It’s fire and fun–you see a real show with those two. They’re feeling it and working it. And Kristian is so musical. As a writer, he has what we called a ‘lucky grabbag’ of lyrics, where he would pull an idea out of an old bag of lyrics, and we’d take off on that. And Jennifer is one of those people who has no edit button. She just lets the creativity flow.”

And apparently always has, from her earliest days in her native Georgia.  Shades of Brenda Lee. “I remember being five years old, and standing in my Aunt Kay’s kitchen, singing Sheena Easton’s ‘Morning Train,’” Jennifer remembers. “And my aunt and my mom looked at each other and said, ‘She can actually sing!’”

By seven, she was starring in Christmas plays at her Baptist church, surprising everyone with the forcefulness of her voice. Her ego was fragile, she says, so she thrilled to the response she got on stage. “It definitely felt empowering.”  Eventually, she would front her own Soul Miner’s Daughter and the Jennifer Nettles Band.

Bush, on the other hand, grew up in the east Tennessee mountain communities of Sevierville and Chestnut Hill. He’s part of the family that owned Bush Brothers & Company, perhaps most famous for their baked beans and Duke, the talking dog who’s obsessed with sharing the secret family recipe.  Bush’s grandfather, Jack Tucker, for whom Kristian’s son is named, ran the company, and his dad was a salesman there.

“I grew up in the plant and knew how everything worked by the time I was 10,” he recalls. “I really thought that that was what I was supposed to do. Granddaddy would tell you that when he walked around the canning factory. So I grew up in the thick of it as a little bit of a privileged kid. But I remember going into Knoxville and people just treating me like some sort of dirt from the mountains.”

By the time Kristian was 13, though, the family had sold the company. “My brother and I were in that weird situation where we were the first generation of the family that wasn’t going to inherit something. My parents were like, “Well, nobody’s ever had a dream other than working here. So let’s educate these children as best we can so they can have the option of following their dream, whatever that is.” 

Kristian went to boarding school in Connecticut, and later to Atlanta’s Emory University as a creative writing major.  Yet both he and his younger brother, Brandon, now a member of the rock band Train, gravitated to music. “When I was 15,” says Kristian, still shaking his head at the thrill of recently meeting Bono, “U2’s The Joshua Tree made me think about how I wanted to make albums. It changed my life.”  Right out of college, he began cutting records and playing on those of other Knoxville musicians, eventually forming the folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim.

In 2001, Bush joined singer/songwriter Kristen Hall, who had her own solo albums. The two wrote songs together around stacked harmonies and Bush’s acoustic guitar and mandolin, and put the Sugarland wheels in motion. Then they went in search of a lead vocalist. Enter Nettles, who, like the others, wanted to write grassroots songs that illuminated the connectedness of humanity, and build a kind of secular spirituality into the lyrics.  

If the first album was about small town restlessness and flight, Enjoy the Ride is about settling down and digging in.  “One Blue Sky,” destined to be a fan favorite, was inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and yet casts it in a hopeful light. “I flew to Omaha to write with them for our second session,” says Lisa Carver. “And when I walked in that morning, Jennifer looked at me and went, ‘Today, I want to write something that matters—a song that’s just deeper somehow.’”

Much of Sugarland’s music is what Kristian calls “praying out loud.”  They wrote the new songs with a nod toward showcasing Jennifer’s voice in large arenas, and to that end, brought in producer Byron Gallimore (Tim McGraw, Faith Hill), to co-produce with them. But while they want the music to be fun, it was just as important to showcase their personal mission.

“I love playing music, and I’m going to do music no matter what,” Kristian says, “but if you can take just one Bob Marley step to the left and treat your art with as much spiritual care as possible, you might help out that next person. Because somebody is 15 years old, listening to a Sugarland record, like I was 15 years old, listening to U2’s The Joshua Tree.”

The final test of it all, Jennifer says, is to be able to be on an arena-sized stage, and yet connect as intimately as possible with a massive audience, both emotionally and lyrically. “We want our music to say, ‘These are our stories, but these are your stories, too.’  We want to talk about love and loss, and we want to talk about dreaming, and about challenging yourself to be the best person, the best representation of you that you can be. And sometimes that has heartache involved. Obviously, life is not all rosy, but at the end of the day, people want to go home feeling better about their position in the world, whatever it is.

“We just want to help people celebrate the human condition.”

Alanna Nash has written about country music for many publications. The 2004 Country Music Association Media Achievement award winner has authored six books, including Dolly: The Biography. She’s also co-editor of the new Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America.    

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