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It has been five years since country music phenomenon Sugarland’s debut album Faster Than the Speed of Life was released. At that time, what was once a powerhouse trio evolved into a powerhouse duo, when former band mate Kristen Hall departed in 2005 to pursue a solo career. They have gone on to sell not one but two double platinum CD’s with yet another currently climbing in sales daily.

Their third album Love on the Inside helped to garner Sugarland the #8 spot on Forbes Best Record Sales of 2008 list. Their headlining tour has sold out stadiums the world over since the beginning. On top of all that, the duo had the unique honor of performing at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and Jennifer Nettles was invited to perform with James Taylor and John Legend during the Presidential Inauguration Concert for Barack Obama. The duo recently took home a 2009 Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group and Jennifer Nettles walked away with a Grammy all her own for Best Country Song for her powerhouse hit “Stay”. They have also just received two nominations from the Academy of Country Music. They are nominated for Top Vocal Duo and Vocal Event of the Year for Life in a Northern Town with Little Big Town and Jake Owen.

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, they got their start in the same burgeoning music scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s that gave birth to seminal acts like REM and the Indigo Girls. Both Bush and Nettles were a part of separate bands before they ever collaborated. During the time that Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles have been working together one thing has remained ever constant: the duo’s love and dedication to their fans.

With a rabid following rivaled only by acts like Taylor Swift, Sugarland have worked hard at cultivating a close almost symbiotic relationship with their fans to such a degree that they have even tailor-made their third and newest release for the fans.

Ignoring conventional wisdom that says to release an album first, and then follow up with a special deluxe edition after the album has charted, this time out the duo have gone in the exact opposite direction. The reasoning behind this unconventional approach was to reward the fans who support them by making the limited edition available first, so fans who wanted the extra material wouldn’t have to go back and re-purchase the entire album in order to get it.

Dish recently caught up with the pair during an exclusive phone interview from their home in Georgia, where they were gearing up for their night in the spotlight at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

Dish: You both deserve congratulations on a great year in 2008. Jennifer, you started 2009 off with a bang at the inauguration concert with James Taylor and John Legend. What was going through your head while you were there?

Nettles: I was completely overwhelmed in the most beautiful way. It was such a moment for our country and such a moment in time in the history of the world and we were lucky enough to meet President Obama and his family and Vice President Biden and his family. I was just blown away, so much so that when we were going down the line by the time I got to Mr. Biden’s wife Jill and she introduced herself, I said, ‘Hi, I’m Jennifer and I am completely overwhelmed right now!’ Just being a part of it was such a great honor and getting to perform with one of my musical heroes in James Taylor and of course having John Legend onboard too, the whole thing was so special.

Bush: I was so proud of her. She did an amazing job!

Dish: Since the beginning you have garnered great accolades for your work but it seems that for the first time the whole world is kind of sitting up and paying attention. This year you’ll be performing with Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney among other things. Does it ever feel surreal?

Bush: Well, it depends. I still find myself getting star struck sometimes but I’m a hard one to judge by because I get star struck by people most other people have no interest in. Like, I’m dying to meet the guys from Nada Surf. But, it is kinda cool at times to look over during a performance and see Sheryl Crow give me the thumbs up. When that sort of thing happens I am like “Thank you!” but inside I’m freaking out because I just got the thumbs up from Sheryl Crow!

Nettles: Certain moments it’s very surreal, when you really sit back and take them in and digest them. I am just so grateful and I look at it and think ‘Who gets this life?’ but on the other hand I think ‘Well, why not me?’ I’m a good person. Somebody has got to be successful and happy and go do good in the world with it because I’ll tell you what! There are a lot of assholes who are successful and not happy and don’t do any good in the world. There are a lot of people who are miserable and downtrodden and choose not to see the beauty that they have and then of course there are people who really have hard lives. So, somebody’s got to represent! And pretty much that is all I wanna do.

Dish: When Enjoy the Ride was released there seemed to be an overwhelming feeling that Sugarland had really outdone themselves. That feeling is even more evident with this release. As good as Love on the Inside is how will you ever top yourselves again?

Bush: The first or second week after we had finished the album and turned it in I was terrified about how we were ever going to do better than this. We just started writing music for the next record last week and we got halfway through a song and I was totally floored. We knew immediately that we had the makings of our next record. I can’t say much right now but I can say it is music that is guaranteed to bring people together and pack the stadiums and rock their faces off.

Nettles: We love the studio and we love the whole process and granted as recording artists our job is to write good songs and record them and then we get out and play live in order to promote those songs. But in the tradition that we came up in as singer/songwriters, it was all about the live show. Frankly, that’s what music is. It’s a live experience that we try to capture so that we can play it over and over again on our iPod’s or what have you, but music is a living art form and it is really unfortunate how many people miss that because of the wonders of recording sciences.

Dish: What is your secret to developing such a strong, diverse and dedicated fan base and why is it so important to you and Jennifer that you have that relationship?

Bush: I don’t know if there really is a secret but I think there are a couple of things that feed into it. The history of the environment that we grew up in has a lot to do with it. We both came up in the Atlanta singer/songwriter alternative rock scene of the 80’s and 90’s. A lot of people don’t realize that but once you say it out loud, you can kind of listen to the new record and you can hear REM and Drivin’ & Cryin’ and the Indigo Girls and all the stuff that was going on back then. As a part of that one of the things that we inherited was the fact that it’s okay to have music that contains messages. They don’t have to have revolutions or even statements, but they can have messages. I think that kind of creates an ethos that says when you are choosing what songs to put on your iPod or what record to play, you are choosing music based on what mood you are in. You can completely connect the messages that we send into the world with that choice during your day.

Nettles: I don’t know that there’s a magic formula as much as there’s an awareness and an openness to the whim of inspiration. When the moment strikes you, you get excited and start considering new directions. There are no calculated plans to try one thing one year then something different the next. We just remain open to the possibilities.

Country music is definitely where we sit and while we love to flavor what we do with all of this different kind of music that we enjoy and are inspired by as writers, we just really want to play good music and I don’t care what you call it. I don’t care in what bin you place it or what chat you put it or whatever. I just want it to be good and I want everybody to like it. We get a lot of people who come up at the meet-and-greets and tell me ‘I don’t really like country, but I like what you do.’

I always say, ‘You are who we make records for, my friend!’ If you write music about the human condition the same way that we try to, then that speaks louder than whatever accent or instrumentation you perform it in. / Issue 98 - September 2018
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