The first country album I owned myself was Sugarland’s ‘Love On The Inside’. That record had everything but at it’s heart was great storytelling lyrics, and fun loving, summery arrangements which perfectly framed Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush’s unique vocal sound. That record changed my life in many ways and lead me deeper down the rabbit hole of country music. “That’s a cool record. I’m glad that’s how you found your way in,” Bush reflects as he sits down with me to talk about his 52 song project, the first part ‘52 – ATL x BNA’ has just been released.
Bush and his brother Brandon, who has also had a successful career in music, were destined for a creative lifestyle, becoming more than just musicians but musicologists at a young age. “I was part of a weird Japanese experiment,” Bush begins, a wry smile creeping across his face. “They had this idea in the early 70s, that if a child could learn any language between the age of three and five, is it possible that if you taught them music in the same way, that their brain would learn it like it learns language, would you end up being able to speak music? My very progressive mother decided that that was a choice that she wanted to make for me.”
By the very nature of the experiment, Bush was surrounded by music from the age of three. “It was about immersion. So we listened to the same five or six classical songs over and over again, like they even had speakers under our pillows at night when we would sleep.” When it came to playing music himself, Bush began on the violin. “I was from the hills of East Tennessee, which is a very Appalachian, rural area. I thought I was playing a violin and they called it a fiddle. It’s the same instrument, just two different attitudes.” But as he contemplated his career choices, he reconsidered which instrument to go forward with. “I remember doing the math on my violin teacher trying to figure out how much she was making teaching me and how much she made in the orchestra and I was like, well, playing violin is never going to get it done!” He laughs.
To make these dreams a reality he needed support. “When you start wanting to do something like that, it really has to do with your parents supporting those choices or not. I had one parent, that was really into it – my mum, and I had my other parent, my father, who was pretty insistent that that was never going to work. So I was nervous long after I should have been; I got my first record deal in the early 90s as a rock band and I was still embarrassed that I thought I was going to fail. I’ve legitimately had a record deal on a major label since I was 23 and I’m 52 now, so I can finally admit that this is happening.”
Bush’s first taste of success came when he was a part of the rock band, Billy Pilgrim. They formed a loyal following, travelled the world and experienced some success with their subsequent releases over the ten or so years they were together. Within the country genre though, Bush wasn’t convinced he’d fit in and Sugarland was born out of the struggles Bush was experiencing in life. “Sugarland was formed in the early 2000s,” he reflects, “I had had some pretty significant changes in my life. My mother died unexpectedly over a holiday. Then a couple of weeks later, my brother and I had the studio that we’d been working in, burned to the ground. It took all of our gear with it. If you remember about that time, that’s when, like planes were going into buildings in New York, and it was a very odd time to be alive. It made you question a lot of things. So Sugarland was somewhat formed, basically because the world outside was shit.”
With Andrew Hydra wanting to leave Billy Pilgrim, Bush was at a loose end. “I had been in Billy Pilgrim for 10 years, and had quite a career, I traveled the world but I wasn’t done. My partner at the time, Andrew, had decided to go to California and started life out there, so that meant that my band was going to stop working. So I took the music I was working on then, and that became the basis of the beginning of Sugarland.” Bush continues with the story, “Jennifer, interestingly, was the opening act for Billy Pilgrim for years. So I knew her voice, I just didn’t know if she’d be interested in doing this. She came in and sang some songs that I had already written with Kristen and they sounded great. Part of the audition process, we decided, was writing a song together. And the second song we all wrote together was ‘Baby Girl’.”
‘Baby Girl’ became the highest-peaking debut single for a country music group in 14 years, peaking at number 2 on the Hot Country Songs Chart. “Then we obviously went to Nashville to try to drum up attention and it took a little while to do that. But we already knew how to be in a band and we already knew how to perform and we already knew how to write, which was a lot of this information that people move to Nashville to go and learn, and we already had it. I’m forever grateful for the few people in the business that decided not to ask us to change. They never pitched us a song, they never picked our songs, we just gave them a new record. So we had a very different experience in Nashville than a lot of artists, because we got a lot of permission, without ever having to ask for it.”
‘Love On The Inside’ was the group’s third studio album and they decided to approach it differently than their previous two. “We had been touring for six years straight, and we were accidentally succeeding in a big way. We were so tired, we wanted to come home to Atlanta and record an album and that’s the record we recorded when we came home. So we got to sleep in our own beds for a month and all the Nashville players and producers had to come down here and stay in hotels, the way that we had to do it in reverse all these years. So the music itself is re-grounded on that record in Atlanta. And it was recorded in the same studio that Springsteen had done The Rising – it was really an interesting time and place.”
It’s been a joy and a privilege to watch Sugarland grow ever since but even more fascinating to me, is watching both Jennifer and Kristian go off in their own directions and then come back together stronger. After the success of ‘Southern Gravity’, Bush was keen to see where else his solo project could take him as he once again found himself being inspired by both Atlanta and Nashville. What would it sound like if those two world’s collided? What would happen if Nashville songwriters met R&B musicians? “The question was, are the songs in fact country when they’re made? Or are they country when they’re recorded or when they’re performed? What does that mean? I didn’t know the answer, but I sure wanted to ask the question. I didn’t have a lot of exposure inside of Nashville as a songwriter because we were writing the songs independently of the regular songwriting culture and system in Nashville. I was afraid for a while, that maybe I was terrible at this. The only way to get a good answer would be to go write with these people who are incredible and then see what happened.”
Bush, like a sponge, soaked up the secret to success from the very best. “I got to learn from people like Bob DiPiero or Rodney Clawson, or Andrew Roberts or Brett James, these incredible songwriters and they would teach me by experience, they would show me how to do some of this stuff that I’d been doing for years, I just didn’t know how to apply it before. I always thought I was writing for someone else, that’s the psychology of it. I didn’t spend my money from Sugarland on houses or cars or things that were extravagant. I did, however, spend my money on an 800 square foot room with a bunch of recording gear in it. Then I made sure that there were engineers that were employed the whole time. So I got to record every song I wrote. In Nashville, I guess they’re called demos but to me, I was just constantly making an album that would never come out.”
But the premise of ATL x BNA had been tried years before with Bush’s single ‘Trailer Hitch’. “This selection was an experiment based on a moment in time,” He remembers. “I had been asked by a man who sat next to me on the Grammy board here in Atlanta. He asked me to play a song at his concert. He was a music director, and he said, will you and your brother come sing a song with us. I’ll make it really easy. You just walk on stage, and we’ll already learn your song. The song was called ‘Trailer Hitch’. I went, and I played it with his band of 15 or 18 people. There were like six horn players and five background singers. I had never seen anything like this. It’s just like the Grand Ole Opry, you just walk on stage and play, except I was walking into something that was absolutely the best R&B players in Atlanta, playing my little country song. It turned out to sound like a giant party. I said, country music could use this party. So Brandon and I did that without really telling the record label. Then two and a half weeks later, Jennifer called and said, let’s put Sugarland back together. So I had to lay this project down after I had already heard what it was.”
The musicianship and songwriting is exemplary and although you may think that the two world’s colliding may cause a clash, Bush has forged a unique sound, bursting with personality. One writer he teamed up with was Liz Rose who has written Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ and a number of Taylor Swift songs. The pair collaborated on the cleverly written ‘Mansion’. “Liz and I were sitting there and I said, hey, Liz, how do I write a song to get a girlfriend? She was like, Oh, I can help with that. I’m a very shy kind of quiet man, in my regular life, when I’m not being this musician, guy. She and I spoke for a little while, then she said, Well, why don’t you play me some music? And let me see what happens. And I said, I don’t want to write a love song that doesn’t work on multiple levels, the opportunity here is to write a song that feels as sexy as the things it’s talking about. The first time you hear it, you don’t really understand the wink in it. I just love the fact that I got to put the word Maserati in a song, sometimes I play games with myself about what words I can get stuck into songs.”
As we talk about Bush’s eclectic career, it is also worth a mention that, like Jennifer he has got very involved in musical theatre over the last few years. “I was first approached in 2016, to write a song for a famous playwright. She just called me up and said, Hey, you don’t know me but I need a song for my play. I thought to myself, it can’t be that much different than writing a song for television, or for film and I do that a lot – the theme song for a crazy show called ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, that’s me singing it,” he smiles. “Anyway, I had a meal with her and during the meal, she was describing what she needed. I found that what I was asking her was to tell me the character that was going to be singing the song. I started asking questions, the same way that I would ask them, if you were an artist, and I was helping you write your record. I quickly wrote it literally at the table. I didn’t want to share it with her at the table, because I thought that might freak her out a little bit. So I waited till I got back home and then I sent it to her.”
That one song for a play developed into a full musical and found it’s legs, “Very quickly after that, it was a big success here in Atlanta, and started it’s march toward wherever musicals go when they grow up.” And though Bush had somehow fallen into musical theatre he kept being approached to write for more shows. “I got hired to do a second one. I completed that one in 2020 and it came out in 2021, here in Atlanta called ‘Darlin Cory’, and it was a much larger endeavour – 25 songs. It’s just the idea of having a book writer or a storyteller or a director sit in front of me, and they’re telling me a story. And I’m like, Oh, that’s a great story but I just can’t resist, stretching the story out. Many times instead of sitting in front of someone and saying, wouldn’t it be interesting if the character did this? I feel a little out of my depth in some of those moments, so I would write a song that showed them and then suddenly, they start rewriting the story to fit the song.”
Musical theatre is a tough business to crack but Bush seems to have found a home there. “My experience has been incredibly positive and has been very successful, which is a very odd thing, they tell you all the time that musicals are like a black hole of creativity, you’re going to work on it for 20 years, and then they’re going to hate it and it’s never going to succeed. Suddenly, I’ve just completed my third one and it stages next year. I wrote it for a string quartet, two woodwinds and a singer. It’s just really odd to be able to use the function of presentation that theatre gives in order to tell a story, but having the skill of writing it in three minutes, rather than in two hours. I didn’t realise I’d be as good at it as I am. I’m going around telling people now I hate musicals but I make them.”
As Bush turned in the second part of his 52 project, just minutes before our conversation, he has a lot of irons in the fire. “I have a rock band called Dark Water and it is one of my favourite things that I do because it is so different than the other things that I create. We have an album that we’ve been waiting to release. We’re going to wait till the end of 52.” And there was a reunion recently for Sugarland as they work on new material, “Jennifer and I have recorded an EP already for the label. And we have another album after that to do, which we paused during COVID. I just keep trying to invite people into my world. Come on in, get stuck in a rabbit hole. Go dive deep. We don’t watch one show on Netflix. We watch the whole season. So I’m just releasing four seasons in a year the way we should.” Bush has an exciting couple of years ahead, and we can’t wait to continue following his journey.