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On this sunny, blustery day, the hot new trio Sugarland is taking in the bustling sights and sounds of busy downtown Nashville. The members of the Atlanta-based band stroll outside the city's elegant Hermitage Hotel, where dapper men in morning coats politely open the doors and afternoon tea is served upper-crust style. "This is so amazing," raves effervescent lead vocalist Jennifer Nettles. "We're used to the Motel 6!" That's how quickly the accommodations have changed for Jennifer, Kristen Hall and Kristian Bush since their hit "Baby Girl" stormed the charts and their debut CD, Twice the Speed of Life, was released to hot sales and critical acclaim. Their sudden fame eerily follows the storyline of "Baby Girl," which chronicles a young singer's rise from early struggles (I'm so broke that it ain't Funny, sings Jennifer) to ultimate triumph (Dear mom and dad, I'll send money). Yet as recently as 2002, the three seemed headed down completely separate paths-all dead ends. "I was on the road with my own bands," recalls Jennifer. "Kris had left his band and was working a computer job in Atlanta, and Kristen was writing songs and making her own CDs. But she was looking for something different, and I was wanting a change. Then these guys came along and approached me about teaming up with them." They made a terrific team right from the start. Their first writing session, in Kristen's basement, produced the beginnings of "Baby Girl" and let them know that they might be on to something. "We just connected so well," says Jennifer, "and it was such a fun sound." Now they're having fun in front of their hotel, playfully boarding a luggage cart for a group photo. "I don't know, guys," laughs Kristen, suddenly reminded of Jackass, the MTV show featuring numbskulls crashing out-of-control wheeled vehicles for kicks. "We're gonna go flying down this hill out of control, right?" "Only you would think of that!" fires back Kristian. Thankfully, Kristen's fears don't materialize. The three hop off the cart, get out of the cold wind and head back to the hotel lounge. Inside, Kristian seizes the short break to climb onto a comfy couch between his two female buddies. "Our lives have definitely changed in the last few months," he reflects. "We have more new friends, that's for sure." He pauses and laughs. "And you know something? The restrooms are a lot nicer!" "And there's a lot more airports," adds Jennifer with a wistful smile. "Definitely more time away from home. But the amazing thing is meeting people like Jamie O'Neal and Buddy Jewell and hearing them say, 'Hey, we love your record!' It's like, wow, they know who we are!" But, come on, guys, the biggest change has to be the perks, right? After all, the threesome has paid their road-dog dues: they hauled their own equipment, sold the T-shirts and booked their own hotels. But once the ink dries on that recording contract, people are ready to do all of that for you. "That is a cool thing," Kristen grins. "But I have to admit, it was a little hard to pull back from that at first. I was a graphic artist and did my own CD covers, and there is a point where it seems simpler to do that yourself and be hands-on. But then you realize it's impossible to do that. " A small price to pay for the success that the band focused on from the start like a laser. "We knew what we were trying to achieve," says Kristian. "We were not going to bang our heads against the wall for X number of years and have nothing happen." "We just weren't willing to play smoky clubs, sleep in crappy motels and travel around with eight people in a van," declares Kristen. "We'd been down that road, and we knew it didn't lead anywhere." This new road, unfamiliar as it may be, looks far more promising. Sugarland is obviously living out a dream, if not exactly like the one "Baby Girl" portrays. Life hasn't imitated art just yet. "People say that we're just like the song, but I tell them we're only up to the bridge," says Jennifer. "We're not sending all the relatives money yet, like at the end of the song. But check back with us!"
- Bob Paxman