The Road to Sugarland
By Peter Cronin
© 2006 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.
The storm came quickly and was on top of the fans before they knew it; a real Tennessee squall complete with roaring thunder and dangerous lightning. The steamy-and-sunny weather held until literally the eleventh hour at this year's CMA Music Festival in June, but the sky finally opened up at the end of the final night - just as Sugarland was about to hit the stage.
"I hated it for the fans, but they stuck with it and waited out the rain," said Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles. "We were back in the dressing room and they had them in the tunnels where they evacuate people in that situation. All of a sudden they were all singin' Hank Williams Jr's 'Family Tradition,' and I said, 'I will absolutely stay as long as I have to, to play for these guys because they love music and they are dedicated to it.' They were making the best out of what could have been a pretty chaotic situation."
The same could be said of Sugarland, a trio that rose from the ashes of three marginally successful singer/songwriter careers to become the breakout Country act of 2005. The band's debut album, Twice the Speed of Life, was released in 2004 and before anybody could run for cover, Sugarland was tearing up the charts and Nettles' soaring Country/gospel voice was dominating the Country airwaves. Smash hit singles "Baby Girl," "Something More" and "Down in Mississippi (and Up to No Good)" catapulted the trio - Kristen Hall, Nettles and Kristian Bush - to top-drawer tours opening for Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn.
When Luke Lewis, Co-Chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, caught one of Sugarland's shows, he knew right away he'd found something special.
"Their live performance was among the best I've ever seen," Lewis said. "Jennifer Nettles was mesmerizing, and the songs were great."
"It was pretty quick," Nettles said. "We started and a year later we had a record deal. We had all done it our own way, but without really shooting for the fences. And when we got together we just said, 'Let's go for it, let's write these songs, let's do it in Country Music because that's where the heart of the singer/songwriter is right now and that's what we do.'"
While they're not necessarily on a mission to make Country Music safe again for singer/songwriters, neither is Sugarland your typical Music Row success story.
"I think the Country fans of today are the same people that were into the acoustic rock movement of the '90s," Bush said. "I think they're the same people who bought John Cougar Mellencamp records and Black Eyed Peas records. I'm watching Country Music as a format that opens its arms more liberally than any other format that I've been involved with."
Sugarland's roots go back to Atlanta in the late '90s and the same vibrant singer/songwriter scene that spawned pop hitmakers like Shawn Mullins and John Mayer. Eddie's Attic, a songwriter's club in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, was one of the focal points of the scene and Nettles' husband, Todd Van Sickle, owned the place for a few years. As solo artists, the three were aiming for the then-emerging AAA radio format - Nettles with her locally legendary live shows, Hall with her solo releases on the small High Street label, and Bush with his own major label duo, Billy Pilgrim - when Hall made the call that started the Sugarland ball rolling.
"She called me and said, 'I believe in you, and I believe in your writing, and I think that you're undiscovered,'" Bush said. "She also knew that I'd had a major record deal and that I knew how to navigate all of it, and she'd never done that."
Bush and Hall began writing songs together and immediately knew they'd found something special. Needing a singer, they enlisted Nettles, who became the vocal spark that ignited and distinguished Sugarland.
From their hit singles to deeper album cuts such as the inspirational "Stand Back Up," the songs they wrote together for Twice the Speed of Life chronicle both the frustrations and obstacles they faced trying to bust out of the Atlanta scene and the dreams and the drive that were so integral to their eventual success.
"We really wanted to get out of where we had all been as artists and move beyond that to something bigger," Nettles said. "Consequently all the songs reflect that; 'Fly Away,' 'Baby Girl,' all of those songs - you speak to the human condition and write what you know in your life."
Sugarland's compelling blend of true-to-life lyrics and soaring melodies proved irresistable to Country fans, who quickly propelled the band's sales into the triple-Platinum stratosphere.
"We're constantly excited about every turn of events," Bush said. "Every stage we get to play, and every friend who turns another person on to our music, it's a thrill every time."
Hall may have been the catalyst that got them going, but at the height of Sugarland's newfound success, she made the decision to leave the act and concentrate full-time on her songwriting. Bush and Nettles didn't miss a beat. Focusing on their strengths and similarities, the new duo continued to tour non-stop and write for their upcoming sophomore album. With their small-town backgrounds and shared musical sensibilities, the creative chemistry between them only grew stronger.
"Kristian and I work together very, very well on an interpersonal level," Nettles said. "We enjoy each other's company and we have our own rhythm in the way we write together."
Both Bush and Nettles were raised in small southern towns - she in Douglas, Ga., and he in Dolly Parton's hometown of Sevierville, Tenn., - in homes where music was around all the time.
"My mom loved the radio, and that shaped me as a musician, a writer and an artist," Nettles said. "It was always Crystal Gayle, Rita Coolidge, Juice Newton and Linda Ronstadt, especially."
For Bush, music came early and easily. When he was 4 years old, his mother enrolled him and his brother Brandon in a pilot program at the University of Tennessee for the Suzuki violin method.
"My brother and I were both guinea pigs for that system," Bush said. "When a child's language skills are developing, they teach them music as if it's another language."
It's hard to argue with success. Both Bush brothers went on to become multi-instrumentalists and major-label successes. Brandon plays keyboard with the Columbia Records rock band Train. Most recently, Brandon has been in a Nashville recording studio, adding keyboards to Sugarland's new tracks.
"I'm trying to get Brandon to come out and play with us," Bush said.
For Nettles, growing up in the Southern Baptist tradition was the perfect way to develop her voice.
"Growing up in the South and in the rich heritage of gospel and blues and R&B and soul; it's in our food, it's hot and sweaty and fried chicken and all of those things," she said. "Before Sugarland and Country specifically, my style was unfocused. I love all kinds of music, so I would sing all kinds of music - jazz, show tunes, R&B and Country as well. It's been really nice to focus and develop that part of my craft."
She may have found her true voice singing Country, but Nettles still knows how to rock. When the upstart trio joined rock superstars Bon Jovi for an acclaimed episode of CMT's "Crossroads," the vocal chemistry between Nettles and Bon Jovi was so potent that the band invited Nettles to join them in the studio. The resulting duet single, "Who Says You Can't Go Home," was a multi-week No. 1 Country hit for the New Jersey rockers and a memorable performance at the 2005 CMA Awards. In August, the 2006 CMA Awards nominations were announced and Nettles and Bon Jovi are up for Musical Event of the Year for the duet plus Sugarland also received nominations for Horizon and Vocal Group of the Year.
For Sugarland, the past couple of years have been a non-stop, pedal-to-the-metal ride to the top between the tours and the TV appearances and the Awards shows.
"It feels like a gift, and I'm just thankful for it every day," Bush said about his artistic partnership with Nettles. "Who else can you sit across from in a rocking chair when you're 70 and say, 'Hey, remember playing the GRAMMYS? Do you remember when Paul McCartney came up and said, 'Hey, I really dig your sound-check'?"
When the band appeared on the hit NBC-TV show "Las Vegas," Nettles even got a chance to make her acting debut. But in the midst of all the craziness that goes along with Country stardom, both Nettles and Bush remain focused on maintaining their artistic momentum and taking full advantage of what they know is a once-in-a-lifetime creative partnership.
"I have found that my creative self knows where I am in the world before my conscious self does," Nettles said. "When I look at the songs we're writing for this next record; a song called 'Settling' about not settling for less than you're worth, or a song like 'Want To,' which is about exploring something new and jumping into something deeper; I'm having to go inside and churn up all these things and dig deep."
Bush and Nettles, who are co-producing their sophomore album with Byron Gallimore, can hardly contain their excitement when talking about the music the fans will get to hear this fall when the album, Enjoy the Ride, is scheduled for release on Nov. 7.
"It's a really beautiful record," Bush enthused. "It's still a roots record, and the topics and the songs are beautiful. A lot of people have discovered what we're doing, and I want to make those people proud."
As for Nettles, reflecting on that stormy Nashville night in June at the CMA Music Festival when - even after four days and nights of non-stop music - the fans waited for more than an hour to hear her band perform, she knows that Sugarland is in exactly the right place.
"I'm from the South and Country Music has been a part of my life forever," she said. "And we are really lucky as Sugarland to have the fans that we do. Every kind of music has its own style of fan, but Country Music, I believe, is special."