Sugarland’s ‘Bigger’ Shaped by Time, Bro-Country and Politics of the Heart
As artists, Sugarland's collective voice went silent five years ago, but their eyes and ears stayed wide open. Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush wrote and recorded solo projects while on their break (they call it a "pause"), but filled notebooks with bits and pieces of ideas and concepts they put in the pot for their first duo album since 2010. Bigger (June 8) has truly been eight years in the making.
Over a few short months, the seven-time CMA and ACM Vocal Duo of the Year assembled a finished product, but to say it was created hastily is to dismiss the time spent listening, watching and asking questions — the right questions — in country music and beyond. Bro-country, equality, fake news, two election cycles, increasing dependence on digital and social media, Orlando, Manchester, Parkland, Las Vegas ... Sugarland will forever insist they're not a political group, but they don't ignore important social issues.
"Tuesday's Broken" is the most obvious example on Bigger that was inspired by a very real, very important moment in history. The ballad was written in the wake of school shootings, but the first verse focuses on the pain of the survivors and their friends and family, including Bush's own 7th grade daughter. "Mother," "Bird in a Cage" and "Not the Only" are served heavy, meant to start real conversations. Nettles and Bush? They're just moderating for the most part. Even talking about now-indefensible subjects like bro-country, they find something nicer to say than "bless." Sure, they were happy to have skipped right over it, they joke, but when you listen to a song like "On a Roll," you have the bros to thank.
"The progress that bro-country made," Bush says, "was to inject groove into country music and I loved that experience. I wasn't very good at writing those songs, but what I did love about it was there was a complete let go of the importance, to some degree, of the lyric in service to the groove. And that I thought was a super cool thing because I feel that in rock music and I feel it in EDM and pop music. I was excited to see it, at least that part of it."
Are there any similarities between releasing this album after five years away and releasing your first album, Twice the Speed of Life, in 2004?
JN: To me, creatively, they're all exciting. Our timeline for this is the only anxious part of this, just because we've done it in such a shorter amount of time. But I guess, you know, if you only got a minute, it only takes a minute.
There's not a chance to second or third-guess all your decisions.
KB: That's absolutely the truth.
When you stepped away in 2012, fans didn't know who Chris Stapleton was. Sam Hunt was an unknown. Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" might have been on the radio?
KB: It was, because you (to Jennifer) texted me like, "I love this song."
It's a different world right now. The definition of country music is so much broader.
JN: Sooo much broader.
KB: In a lot of ways, it made sense that those things were coming, because music when you make it a lot of times — I didn't realize this until we took a break — the songs you hear on the radio are like three years old and the productions are at least a year old. If you're on the constant cycle like we were, we liked things that were never going to make it on the radio at the time. In retrospect, the pause has allowed us to get those things to where people already allow it.
JN: I feel like we've always been leaders in the format and I feel like we've always had so much fun playing in those margins of those different and varied influences. I think in the time we have taken a pause, the highway has broadened to such an extent that now it's such a big superhighway. What used to be margins that we played in are no longer margins.
Was there a moment in making Bigger that you had a, "We can do this now!" epiphany? "On a Roll" stands out to me.
KB: It is music that makes you move. Someone giggled the other day and said, "Did Kacey Musgraves just start a new genre?" and I was like, "What are you talking about?" And they said, "Disco-country." We already got that.
JN: ("On a Roll") is like roller-skate disco.
KB: I love it because it's infectious. The thing I always loved about our band is we got to at least ask the question, "Do you like it?" It wasn't, "Is it country enough?" it was, "Do you like this?"
"If I had to describe to someone who didn't know my relationship with you, I would say, 'She is a person who gives me courage on things that I don't have courage on.'"
By stepping away, you weren't able to have a voice during some key moments in recent history. The Route 91 shooting was a moment where an artist may have wanted to have a voice. Was there a time you wished you were still together if for no other reason than to speak to and console your fans?
JN: No, in the sense in that I don't believe there was a whole lot of talk about Route 91. I didn't hear a ton of it within the industry, as far as really delving into a conversation. Of course there were heartfelt condolences and there was sadnesses, but there wasn't a lot of dialogue after that happened. I do feel like on this record that we made — I think for better or for worse, and actually for worse — those kinds of conversations are still in play when we think about atrocities that happen in the world and where we are in terms of a country and the polarized political climate and all those pieces. That is all in this record. You will be able to hear opportunities and invitations to have a conversation on this record.
How about just being able to give fans a hug at a time when they might be hurting?
KB: I remember after (the Route 91 shooting) ... (Radio DJ) Bobby Bones was doing the one thing (inviting artists to talk about it), and I actually just reached out to him like "Hey man, thank you for doing what you're doing right now because we didn't get that opportunity when bad things happened to us and our fans ... I really love that you're doing this. It's moving me."
Was "Tuesday's Broken" an emotional co-write?
KB: Oh yeah. I would say that was unexpected. It was a complete ... if I had to describe to someone who didn't know my relationship with you (to Jennifer), I would say, "She is a person who gives me courage on things that I don’t have courage on. She will pick up something and go, ‘That’s emotional to you. I hear you. How ‘bout this?’ And it isn’t scary at all to her. Therefore the next step when you go up the steps, when you're going up to a door, the next step — she already took that one.
KB: Then when we start to walk together — (to Jennifer) that's the creative process to me and my experience with you.
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