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Sweet Success

by Jason MavNeil

HIGH ABOVE DOWTOWN TORONTO in an incredibly large and gorgeous suite, sits vocalist Jennifer Nettles and multi-instrumentalist Kristian Bush, better known as Sugarland to most country music fans.

The height and jaw-dropping look of the room seems to complement the incredible success they’ve had this year at the top of the charts.

The Atlanta-based duo, performing November 8 at Lakes Regional Park in Fort Myers, is up for six Country Music Association awards, which will be announced November 12 in Nashville. And while they would like to take home all six awards, they are quite pleased with how the album Love On The Inside has been received thus far.

“Thrilled”, says Nettles. “I think you’re hopeful that it’s going to do that and we felt confident in the songs.” She continues, “I wouldn’t say surprised because we’re pretty big critics of ourselves. We’re pretty hard on ourselves.”

“We left what we needed to on the writing room floor,” Bush adds. “We worked really hard on this one. I know as a songwriter how hard you’re working because you get to a point where you realize that it isn’t right. Before, on a previous album, you might have left it because you were tired or exhausted. We kept asking the questions, ‘Is this the right emotion? Can we get better?’”

Originally the big hurdle the group had wasn’t so much what to put on the record but what to take off. Fortunately the band’s record label wanted an alternate version of “Love On The Inside”, meaning those wayward songs would find a home after all.

Although there are several songs which Sugarland enjoy off the new record, the single “Already Gone” is one which seems very near and dear to Nettles.

“It started out as a musical idea rather than a lyrical idea,” she says. “I wanted to do a song that sort of had a round-type feeling to it. In Nashville you talk about the verse, the channel and the chorus. And each part of the song, or each melody that might be in the song by the end, could fit over each other and have all these counter melodies.”

“We were trying to (figure out) should we finish this one sitting on the bus or is there a songwriter that’s going to come out and write with us that we think might be a great fit,” Bush says. “We were kind of holding it back, waiting for the right person and we were in Chicago with Bobby (Pinson).”

Nettles also says she’s steady when performing the song, although early on the weight of the song made her wonder if she could perform it without breaking down.

“I remember a couple of times the story was so emotional it was like, ‘Okay, this is pretty powerful. Am I going to be able to sing this?’” she says. “And luckily yes, you’re able to get into character so I’m passed that.”
Perhaps the song which started off innocent enough but has many people talking is “Steve Earle”, a song that the troubadour hasn’t heard but would probably get a kick out of if he did. Originally, both Bush and Nettles figured the song would make for some fun while riding the bus from city to city, show to show. But they only expected it to stay around the tour bus kitchen, not end up on the record.

“Kristian had his latest album, Washington Square Serenade, and he was playing it for me and we were enjoying it, talking about it and talking about him,” Nettles says. “And I had no idea of his story and Kristian was sharing with me just his life and as I was listening to it.

“I was laughing and said, ‘That is a song.’ His life is a song, he is a country song, he is a country cliché. So this is worth writing about. We thought about making it a hidden song at the end. The label heard it and they said, that’s hysterical, put that on there. So we said ‘Okay, we didn’t think you’d love it. We love it.’”

What Sugarland also love is that they’ve been able to push the country-crossover envelope a bit further at a time when it’s hardly newsworthy. Last year the duo joined forces with Beyonce for a performance at the 2007 American Music Awards, one that was given mixed reviews.

But Nettles says they would love to do something again with the former Destiny’s Child star.

“Tell her to call us and we’ll see what she can do,” Nettles says. “It’s the creativity of songs that we enjoy, taking them and making them ours in a certain way. Not obviously taking them as our own but putting a twist on it that makes it feel personal to us and musical to us in a different way and putting it back out there. And showing people that, ‘Hey, you can put a good song in any genre in any style.’

“That’s the beauty of music and good storytelling, it can be told in many different ways. And that’s what we enjoy.” •

from the November-December 2008 issue