To flaunt clout and credibility in the world of contemporary country music, an artist has to first be a fan. That’s the requirement set down by Kristian Bush, guitarist and co-vocalist of Sugarland.
The country-pop duo is completed by lead singer Jennifer Nettles.
“You have to be a fan,” Bush said. “You need to engage in fandom.
“I was in Boston at Fenway Park for the second of the Police shows this year. I was up there. That mattered. I’ll never forget that experience. That’s why I want to have that experience be something that our fans can take home every night.”
In a little more than four years, Nettles and Bush have fashioned Sugarland into one of the leading new-generation voices of pop-conscious, commercial-savvy country music. The duo has scored chart-topping singles (“Want To,” “Settlin’” and the recent “All I Want to Do”) and high-profile side projects (Nettles’ 2006 duet hit with Jon Bon Jovi, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”) and has maintained consistent visibility at awards shows (Sugarland is up for five Country Music Association trophies in November: entertainer, single, vocal duo, music video and musical event of the year).
For Bush, though, maintaining a link to fandom means striving to offer a sense of discovery that ignites audience engagement with any music, country or otherwise.
“Especially within commercial country music, most people get it wrong,” Bush said. “They think that what you’re selling is a CD, a concert ticket or a T-shirt. What you’re really selling, what you’re really exchanging with people, is the discovery of something. I know that when I get a new record, I’m up and down the hallways backstage going, ‘Hey guys, have you heard this?’ You get to a point where you want to turn your friends on to what you have discovered. That’s what being a fan is all about.”
That sense of discovery has definitely carried over into two of Sugarland’s more high-profile performances of late.
At an event dubbed the Orange Peel last month at Oklahoma State University, the duo headlined a concert/pep rally where it confronted a largely uncommitted demographic: a college audience.
“You never know what a bunch of college kids really think about you,” Bush said. “As a commercial country band, things could go horribly off track. You don’t know if all they really want is (indie-pop fave) Margot and the Nuclear So-and-So’s. But it was unbelievable how the crowd raised the roof off that place.”
The other concert was at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre in August, when Sugarland was billed with Sheryl Crow and the Dave Matthews Band. The performance was a kickoff for the Democratic National Convention, but its theme was environmental awareness. That, not an endorsement of a political party, was what put Sugarland on the Rocks.
“It’s pretty fascinating that environmental issues are part of our political process now and have a platform at a convention, any convention,” Bush said. “But imagine what it’s like for us to pop our heads above into pop culture and be billed between Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews. I had to go, ‘Are these my peers now? If so, I own all my peers’ records.’”
Sugarland’s emphasis on fandom also plays out in two very different tunes from its recent album “Love on the Inside.”
The first is called “Steve Earle.” Take a wild guess what that one is about. Turns out that Bush, an avid fan of renegade songsmith Earle, began work on the tune largely as a lark with Nettles.
“Jennifer is a fan, but I’m an absolutely stupid fan,” he said. “I started to explain to her, ‘I think he is on wife No. 6 or 7 now, even though wives 1 and 4 were the same woman.’ Jennifer just said, ‘Really, this dude is a country song.’”
And has there been any response - good, bad or vitriolic - from the none-too-soft-spoken Mr. Earle?
“We wish. We sent it to him but thought if the song (ticks) him off, let’s not put it on the album. We are bigger fans than we are insistent songwriters. The response we got was that Steve doesn’t read anything - reviews, anything at all - about himself, so why would he listen to a song that has been written about him? We thought, ‘Genius! We love him even more.’ But his manager explained to him what we were trying to do. We were told he laughed. That, in itself, is a triumph.”
The other fan-savvy tune, included on “Love on the Inside’s” “deluxe edition,” is a cover of the 1985 pop hit “Life in a Northern Town” by England’s The Dream Academy. Performed with help from fellow country popsters Little Big Town and Jake Owen, the song couldn’t be more removed from country tradition. It was penned by Dream Academy chieftain Nick Laird-Clowes, who initially co-produced the tune with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour as a tribute to fabled British folk songwriter Nick Drake. Sugarland’s version earned the duo its nomination for musical event of the year at the upcoming CMA awards.
“Country music isn’t so much about where you live anymore as it is about a certain attitude of celebration, of sharing an appreciation for a certain kind of story. Country isn’t a subculture anymore.
“Our version of ‘Life in a Northern Town’ is a translation. It’s an American take on a British song. I was maybe 14 when I first heard it. Even then, I thought it was magic.”
In this case, the response from the song’s composer was immediate and favorable.
“Nick from The Dream Academy wrote us a really beautiful letter. He said the song was a creation that could only ever exist in a studio and that he didn’t think anyone would ever be able to cover it. Then he said, ‘You have proven me wrong.’”
Perhaps the final word on Sugarland’s sense of fan devotion is being reflected on its current tour. Nettles and Bush regularly include cover tunes in their shows. Among the more recent entries have been songs by The B-52s (“Love Shack”) and R.E.M. (“Nightswimming:”), bands that share a
common thread with Sugarland: All three hail from Georgia.
“The nod to both of those bands was intended,” Bush said. “Cover songs are supposed to give you a frame of reference for yourself and the music you have listened to. You get to feel at least a distillation of who that artist is - providing you’re a fan, of course.”