Sugarland is back, 'Bigger' and stronger

Posted June 11, 2018 3:57 p.m. EDT

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They walked into the room arm in arm.

He, dapper in a fedora and dark pants, she, luminous in black-and-white striped pants and flawless makeup.

They moved to a couch set up in a private room of the scruffy James Brown Arena, where, in about 30 minutes, dozens of fans waiting for a grip-and-grin and photo snap will trickle in and disclose various versions of their dedicated fandom.

But first, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are going to talk for a bit -- about the difficulties of raising children in a complicated world, about the trepidation of spending the summer on tour buses, and about Sugarland.

It's been eight years since the duo released an album and nearly as long since their "Incredible Machine" tour roamed the world for more than a year, essentially burning them out in the process.

But, as they sit millimeters apart, laughing easily and finishing each other's sentences, it's apparent that this return is no cynical cash grab, no quickie album and tour to replenish the bank accounts.

This is two people who worked together for nearly 15 years and took a five-year hiatus to expand their interests. Nettles, a native of Douglas, Georgia, who currently lives in New York, acted on Broadway ("Chicago") and in Dolly Parton's highly viewed TV specials. Bush, a longtime Atlantan who still calls the Decatur area home, composed a musical (the Alliance Theatre production "Troubadour") and wrote and produced music.

They both released solo albums -- and last year realized that the time was right to reconvene.

On this night, they are an hour removed from taking the stage for the first official date of their "Still the Same" tour.

The show is dazzling -- bright, fun, playful and real.

The set list doesn't neglect Sugarland's parade of hits -- "Baby Girl," "Stuck Like Glue," "Want To" all receive the spotlight.

But it's also a grand showcase for their new album, "Bigger," their 11-song collection released on June 8.

The album, which they explain was written expeditiously -- everything just clicked, is filled with a sweet ode to their history ("Still the Same"), a searing and topical ballad ("Tuesday's Broken"), a glorious pop anthem (the title track) and a groovy fist pumper that features a Nettles rap ("On a Roll").

Oh, and there's also a little help from label-mate Taylor Swift, whose gift of a song -- "Babe" -- helped return the duo to the Top 10 Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

But we'll let them tell that story -- and many others -- about the evolution of "Bigger" and the homecoming of Sugarland.

Q: For years, you both would say you'd get back together when the time was right. So what made this the right time?

Nettles: At first, we thought it was calendar logistics. Then when we started writing together, what we saw was that the timing was less about the calendar and more about the message. All these songs, as we started to see them collected, we thought, OK, this is bigger -- no pun intended -- than what we thought. This has a bigger message; this has a bigger purpose.

Bush: Part of it is an expression of us working together as adults and parents that are looking out at a world, because you look at the world different when you become a parent. I'm the parent of teenagers, and I have to really explain things to them now.

Nettles: Try explaining it to a 5-year-old. (My son) Magnus and (husband) Justin (Miller) were in Nashville when we were rehearsing when there was a shooting at the mall they were at. That particular shooting was two people fighting, but still, the current climate right now is such that to explain it to him ... I mean, how do you explain that to a 5-year-old?

Q: Did you miss each other?

Nettles: No, I think for me it was such new eyes, (so) there wasn't a missing in that way. I mean, look, I'm joyful that we get to come back together. I'm joyful that we came back together and it happened the way that it has. I'm joyful to get to revisit the music we created previously that we didn't each get to visit when we were doing our own things -- that being the whole purpose, to do other music -- but it makes it super joyful to come back to that.

Q: Is it exciting to be back on the road?

Nettles: I'm looking forward to the shows. I am cautious and tepid at best about the travel, especially now with a 5-year-old. He came with me on all my solo tours when he was a baby, but a baby is very different than 5 years old. He knows we're going on the bus and his bunk will be tricked out -- this time it's "Jurassic Park." I hope he'll think it's fun. I'm basically going to make it like summer camp.

Bush: (laughing) He's gonna think you have the best job in the world!

Q: So this Taylor Swift song ("Babe") -- it's the first time you have a song that you haven't written on a Sugarland album. How did this happen?

Bush: We're on Big Machine, Taylor's label, and (label head) Scott Borchetta brought the song to us and said you're not gonna believe this, but Taylor is pitching a song and I let her know you guys might be getting back together.

Nettles: We're so lucky, because in taking a hiatus, there's a whole group of people around her demographic that did not know Sugarland, they missed us. So how fantastic to be offered that introduction.

Q: Since you last had an album and tour, things have changed -- social media wasn't what it is, the public conversation wasn't what it is, the country wasn't what it is and also the radio industry has changed a lot. What challenges have you faced with this new music?

Nettles: From the time we walked on the stage together to give a wink and a nod at the (Country Music Association Awards in November), we could tell that felt authentic (from the fans). But I'm not gonna lie; I feel we have to do a little proving ourselves and I'm up to that.

Bush: We've got a really good album to do it. ... That's what we've done on this whole experience -- tell the truth. I think it's honest because we're people who just showed up with the technology that is happening now, with the fortitude of our creative space that we have now, and we're just going to do our best to tell you the world we see.

Melissa Ruggieri writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: mruggieri(at)ajc.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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