When Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles walked on stage together at the 2017 CMA Awards to present the trophy for Vocal Duo of the Year, the country world was abuzz. Their first joint appearance since 2012, the moment had many wondering if Sugarland was finally reuniting after their five-year hiatus. While the duo had hinted that they would come back together when the timing was right, their awards show appearance in November set the ball in motion.
“There was never a time we thought it was a thing of the past,” Nettles recently told members of the industry during a rehearsal for their 2018 Still the Same Tour in Nashville. “We always said from the beginning that we left that door open. We just continued to walk the truth that we knew and to do what we wanted to do and we are doing that still.”
Since announcing their hiatus, Nettles and Bush have kept busy creating music separately. As Nettles explains, the intention of their pause as a duo was to go and “fill our cups in other ways: as human beings, as artists, as craftsmen and women.”
Both Nettles and Bush achieved this with countless side projects. Nettles released three solo albums — 2014’s That Girl, 2016’s Playing with Fire and To Celebrate Christmas — while Bush dropped 2015’s Southern Gravity. Additionally, Bush served as producer for both Lindsay Ell’s debut album, The Project, as well as Tyler Farr, while Nettles pursued Broadway and television roles including Chicago and Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.
“We have come back with really full cups in terms of there are things that we can do in Sugarland that we can’t do on our own and there are things that we can do on our own that we can’t do in Sugarland, and there’s this beautiful symbiosis where one feeds the other,” Nettles tells Sounds Like Nashville, seated on the arm of a couch beside Bush during a recent press day.
“So, we’ve come back with full cups, not only of life and experience, but to be able to look at each other and go, ‘Oh my God! And what about this, and what about this?'” she says excitedly. “We’re also in a very ripe time, in terms of the world and in terms of our country, where we have had a lot to say that we can only say in this specific way that Sugarland does so well. So that has also been a beautiful discovery of the reasons and the timing for coming back together that I’ve enjoyed.”
As Nettles talks, Bush nods his head in agreement. At times, they finish each other’s sentences like the old friends they are and occasionally grab hands when praising the other’s talents. When asked how Bush’s past experience as a producer helped Sugarland’s new album, Bigger, out June 8, Nettles waves her left arm in the air and exclaims, “Let me answer! Let me answer!” as she reaches for his hand.
“This is part of what I’m saying when I say we’ve each gone and filled our cup and gained many things and new skills. Kristian came in with all these fantastic skills that he had crafted and honed within himself over the past five years in terms of being a producer,” Nettles marvels. “Even where technology is concerned and writing, the things that he was able to come in with — musical ideas that already had a groove, already had the bass and the drums — so there were all these pieces that were already efficiently there, that he brought in and knowing how to do based on all the work he’s done in between.”
I want to be remembered for storytelling and for stories that touch people…
When the two bandmates began discussing their return, they say it wasn’t one specific moment that initiated things. Instead, it was more of a series of questions and answers: “Does the calendar work? Are you even interested? Can we write together?”
“Where I usually start the story is about right there which is, ‘Sure, maybe we ought to sit down and write. Just in case, you know? See what happens,'” Bush explains. “And the really great part of that beginning is we literally sat down and wrote a song that you are literally listening to as a first single. That is the first song, that is the first moment. So there’s something really unique about you going on this journey with us at the same time. You’re listening to ‘Still the Same’ about as many times as I have.”
Sugarland wrote most of the album in New York and Bush says when they first met to create what would become “Still the Same,” they sat on the floor and began throwing out ideas.
“When you hear it, it’s an account. It’s like, ‘Well, where do we start? We haven’t done this in so long. Well, how about we start right here where we are? What does it feel like to walk in this door after all this time? You’ve been carrying this around; walk in the door and lay it down. Let’s meet in this moment where we are.’ And that’s the song,” Nettles recalls.
The lyric that they built the song around was “Your future is your history.” Nettles initially said the line and Bush loved it and wondered how they could make that the song. They then built the track up from there.
“There’s a lot of instinct that happened on that song that, I think, played out over the months that followed. But the real beautiful part for me was just seeing that the instincts were all there,” Bush says with a smile.
Sugarland are well known for penning songs with a message and Bigger is no different. On their 11-track album there are songs that touch upon the countless school shootings throughout the nation, female empowerment, the #MeToo movement, and an all-encompassing love. Nettles further explains how it has always been important for Sugarland to translate pain into hope within their music.
We don’t like to preach but we do send messages of love and hope.
“I think it’s one of the things that music can do best. Music does it in a way that no other medium does. I think it can really speak right to the heart,” she says. “And I think, along with that, there’s a bit of responsibility. Dare I say, that it’s a calling. A powerful part of this whole album are those sorts of messages, and that it is pain into hope. Music is transformative in that way and there is a lot of pain happening right now.”
One of the album’s standout moments is “Tuesday’s Broken,” which Bush and Nettles penned together. Inspired after one of the many school shootings in the U.S., Nettles opens the song with whispered vocals as she questions how to explain these events to her son.
“Yesterday hell rained down / Another kid, another school in another town / I think about how to tell my son and I think about how that one got a gun,” she sings.
“What do you do as a parent? [This] was Kristian’s initial inspiration behind the first verse. How do we talk to our children about these heavy, dark things?” Nettles asks. “I had read an article by a woman named Ruby Sales, who is a Civil Rights activist. In it she said, ‘We should be asking each other the question, in these painful political times, where does it hurt?’ Because everything is so polarized right now I thought, ‘This is a great time for that.’ Meaning, this verse is a great time for that overarching message so let’s put those together.”
The song also touches upon social media becoming a major culprit in teenage suicide and how instead of ignoring these issues, parents should start to ask, “Where does it hurt?”
“What if we tried to reach them with words? / What if we looked in their eyes and asked where does it hurt? / Would they find all they were worth? / Monday was hoping / Don’t leave it unspoken / Tuesday’s broken,” Nettles belts on the song’s final chorus.
Bush says the song has given him an opportunity to have important conversations with his own son and daughter about online bullying, teen suicide, and school shootings. Sugarland hope the song opens up the dialogue between adults as well.
“It’s less about the guns and it’s more about the kids. What I love about that song from a writer perspective is that it doesn’t seem that we’re going to pour gasoline on anything. We’re just asking questions about kids that matter,” Bush notes.
Another powerful track is “Mother.” The soaring and personal ballad has Nettles singing of the supportive role a mother often plays on a child’s life.
“She fixes all the broken things / When you’re in love she’s got a ring / To give to you she hopes you give away / She don’t care who you give it to / Where they’re from, if they pray like you / As long as they are good to you that’s enough / First thing she taught you was love is love,” she sings on the inspiring ballad.
“We wanted to celebrate what we feel is so beautiful about mothers, what we have in our own mothers, and what we see that is beautiful about that relationship and that kind of unconditional, open-ended love,” Nettles explains. “Within country music, we have such a lovely opportunity because we have such a broad fan base and a broad demographic. To be able to offer messages of how we see the world, hopefully might inspire people that if they don’t see it that way maybe they might ask a question.”
She adds, “Your mama might not have been that way but she should have. What she wants most for you is somebody that’s good for you and good to you. It doesn’t matter how somebody prays. It doesn’t matter who they are. The ‘love is love’ line, obviously being a beautiful motto for the LGBTQ community as well, we wanted to include that in there. In a time where religion and sexual orientation are sometimes hot buttons for people, we wanted to talk about the love piece of that from a mom and what’s really important.”
Bush further explains that while there is a lot of messaging in the album, Sugarland doesn’t go about it in a preachy way. As a result, the lyrics aren’t yelling at the listener but instead talking to them.
“When we get in a room and write, we’re completely aware of who might be listening and how to reach their heart instead of how to set them off. Go on and calm everybody down and then hug them and then remind them that their mother would be sorely disappointed in them if they started to hate,” he adds.
For the first time in their career, Sugarland has recorded an outside song on their album. “Babe,” the duo’s new single, was penned by Taylor Swift and Train’s Pat Monahan. As Nettles recalls, they received a phone call from Swift, who said she had a song she’d love for them to listen to.
“We started out together with Taylor around the same time, except she was 15 and we were not 15. But not far!” Nettles jokes ahead of performing “Babe” at their tour rehearsal. “At the time we had a little unsigned EP that she still has that we autographed for her. We’ve been mutual fans and admirers of each other. When she heard we were getting back together she was excited and said that she had a song and would we be interested in it. We said, ‘Yes, of course!’ and wanted to do it the most justice and recorded it. She loved it when she heard it and wanted to be a part of it.”
In addition to “Babe,” the album’s anthemic title track will prove another memorable moment in Sugarland’s live show. A song that Nettles credits as being cathartic, “Bigger” is an empowering song with an uplifting message of self-acceptance that features the singer’s rapid fire singing style within the bridge as she belts, “They think they’re big, but you’re bigger.”
“We talked about, in terms of what it is to be a woman or what it is to be a father of a daughter, what kinds of messages do we want to offer our girls and what kinds of support do we want to offer each other as women? And, what sort of changes do we want to offer to the world as humans?” Nettles explains. “We’re seeing, especially with the #MeToo movement, so many ways that we are evolving.”
She adds those two lines of the bridge, “they think they’re big, but you’re bigger,” will hopefully remind people, and more importantly remind young girls, of their worth.
Now in the midst of their 2018 Still the Same Tour, Sugarland promise that the trek will include the countless hits their fans know and love as well as some of the new material from Bigger. As Nettles assures, each show will be “encapsulated in a transformative musical environment.”
While it has been a long five years for Sugarland fans anxiously awaiting the reemergence of the duo, Bush and Nettles prove that they are, in fact, still the same. Their time away allowed them to focus on their individual passions and inspirations. As a result, their return shows that their bond and musicianship is stronger than ever. While some things may have changed for Sugarland, they hope the messages within their songs continue to inspire and to leave a lasting mark on listeners.
“I want to be remembered for storytelling and for stories that touch people and connect them to themselves and to each other. Mostly, I want them to be reminded of what they want to become,” Nettles concedes. “Sometimes we think about that or sometimes that becomes more clear when we think about where we’ve been. Sometimes we like to celebrate that nostalgia. For the most part, we don’t like to preach but we do send messages of love and hope. I hope that we are able to leave that behind.”