Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles has been everywhere of late: singing with James Taylor and John Legend at President Obama’s pre-inaugural celebration, dueting with Adele on the Grammys and appearing this week on “Oprah.”
“Nobody cried,” said Nettles of the latter appearance, where she was joined by Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker. “It wasn’t like we had the big heart-to-heart moment on the couch with Oprah.”
Over the course of three best-selling country albums, Nettles has quickly managed to transcend not only Sugarland, her award-winning duo with Kristian Bush, but also country music itself. At the Grammys and the Obama event, she sang pop hits with the artists who made them famous. In concert, she’s been known to cover classics by Beyonce, R.E.M. and Def Leppard. And don’t forget her smash duet with Bon Jovi on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” in 2006.
“Jennifer’s voice is amazing,” said Sugarland fan Rochelle Kotlarz of St. Louis Park, Minn. “It’s strong, it’s raw, it’s sexy, it’s lovely.”
It’s also the most Southern-soaked female voice in country since Dolly Parton’s. Nettles’ voice is twangier than a front-porch hoedown in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I love her accent,” said Kotlarz. “Sugarland is very contemporary country, very soulful. But I also appreciate old-time country.”
If she chooses, Nettles can rein in the accent, as evidenced on “Fall Into Me” on Sugarland’s 2008 CD, “Love on the Inside.” “It depends on the emotion that you’re trying to convey,” Nettles, 34, said recently from her Atlanta home.
What Nettles can’t seem to rein in is the notion that she should go solo and leave partner Bush behind. She’s Penn to his Teller. She’s taller and more talkative, more dynamic and domineering - and looks like a movie star. (Cameron Diaz or Kirsten Dunst? Take your pick.) Not to mention that she’s the lead singer and mouthpiece.
But Bush, 39, the shy guy hiding under a fedora and playing guitar and mandolin, is her partner, artistically and business-wise. She describes him as an eager-to-please, young-at-heart dreamer, who sees the world with a childlike innocence.
“He is my favorite person to write with,” Nettles said of the married father of two. “We never know what the future will hold. ... If there’s something that he itches to do or I itch to do, we’ll be supportive of each other.”
She figures the outside endeavors can bring more attention to Sugarland. But given her increasingly visible solo profile, people wonder: Why does she need Bush?
“We’ve heard that question before, and it’s obviously hurtful to Kristian,” she said. “From a musical perspective and from an emotional perspective, it’s a wonderful partnership for me. It’s kind of like the Eurythmics; Annie Lennox went off and had a solo career. But I have no plans for that as of right now.”
Sugarland actually started out as a trio in 2003. Folkie Kristen Hall had hooked up with Bush, formerly of the folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim, and Nettles, who had a long alt-rock career in Atlanta with Soul Miner’s Daughter and the Jennifer Nettles Band.
After Sugarland’s debut, “Twice the Speed of Life,” took off in 2005 with the hits “Baby Girl” and “Something More,” Hall left during the recording of the second album to concentrate on songwriting. Since then, Sugarland has scored four No. 1 country songs, including “Already Gone” from the duo’s third CD.
Not only did Nettles split with Hall (who has sued Sugarland for royalties) but she divorced her husband in 2007. Those kind of trying situations help her dig deep emotionally. But she said her most famously emotional song, the lost-love hit “Stay,” is not autobiographical.
She performed the tear-inducing acoustic ballad on the Grammys, Country Music Association Awards and Academy of Country Music Awards and won song of the year at all three - a rare trifecta.
“It’s an iconic song where the hero has fallen and she has her own self-redemption,” she explained. “There’s something so appealing about that.”
Sugarland also offers plenty of fun stuff, such as the current single, “It Happens.” The title is a takeoff on a popular expression that can’t be printed in this newspaper. Nettles gets playful, singing: “pshhhhh, it happens.”
“Sometimes in concert, if there aren’t a lot of kids and how cheeky I’m feeling that evening, I will definitely blur the lines there,” she said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
She has been having big-time fun with her non-Sugarland appearances, including the inaugural event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of the Obamas, Bidens and 800,000 other people.
Afterward, in the receiving line, Nettles blurted to Vice President Biden’s wife, Jill: “Hi. My name is Jennifer Nettles, and I am overwhelmed right now.”
Nettles said that “it was definitely a pinch-me moment. I felt so, so proud to have been part of history even if it was just trying to interpret a song that I thought was wildly appropriate for the event, James Taylor’s ‘Shower the People,’ and getting to sing with one of my musical heroes.”