After Taylor Swift co-wrote and sang on Sugarland’s recent song “Babe,” the pop megastar reached out to singers Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush and said, “OK, we’re going to do a video for this, right?” They responded, “Sure.” Swift had an idea. “Her idea email was an entire treatment,” Bush says with a laugh, by phone from his Atlanta home.
“I remember my response being two things,” he continues. “One: ‘If you ever quit your day job, you should do this for a living.’ And two: ‘I have a crazy idea. How about if I play every character outside the (main) characters?’ And she was like, ‘This is genius.'”
Thus did Bush, in his beard, hat and glasses, wind up making Alfred Hitchcock-like cameos as a TV reporter, bartender and a man walking a dog. The video is about a love triangle between Nettles, her husband and Swift as a homewrecker, and Bush appears for a total of about 10 seconds, but he connected with the roles. He has been a mostly anonymous guy in the band with the colorful and charismatic Nettles since 2002.
“It’s so funny how this goes, in many ways, with me in bands — culturally, (fans) know I’m standing there, they’re just not quite sure what I do,” said the 48-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter. “It’s a really fun way to play with that reality.”
Sugarland is the rare country duo where the singers consistently sound like they’re thrilled to be with each other — although they formed in 2002 with a third member, Kristen Hall, it was Nettles and Bush who established the instant musical chemistry. Nettles had a gospel and soul background and had been in a band called Soul Miner’s Daughter; Bush had been in a folkie band, Billy Pilgrim, which had a major record deal.
Bush’s mother, who died when he was 30, had introduced him to music when he was 3 years old, growing up on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. She signed him up for violin lessons under the Suzuki Method, which was still new and unusual at the time, a way of learning an instrument similarly to the way a child learns a spoken language. “My mom was a very progressive parent for that part of the country,” Bush recalls. “She would drive me for hours into town (Knoxville, Tenn.) to hold a margarine box under my arm for three hours. I joke that I was a Japanese experiment.”
The training helped give Bush the ability to play any piece of music he hears, even though, like Paul McCartney and Johnny Cash, he can’t read music. In Sugarland, while Nettles became the band’s natural focal point, dominating most of the lead vocals, Bush was happy to play the secret weapon role. Together, they’ve sold 10 million albums in the U.S., including smash hits from 2004’s “Baby Girl” to 2010’s “Stuck Like Glue.”
In 2012, Nettles decided to raise a family and put out a solo album. Bush focused on producing other artists (such as rising country star Lindsay Ell, who opens the show), releasing his own album (2015’s “Southern Gravity”) and creating a musical called “Troubadour” for Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. Then Nettles called again, and they found themselves back in the studio, writing for the first time in five years.
Their reconnection chemistry was “pretty instant,” Bush says. The first song was the autobiographical “Still the Same,” which opens with a line about walking through the door and laying down the weight you’ve been carrying around. “We spent about 15 or 20 minutes bouncing around: ‘Hey, what idea do you want to start on?’ Then she tossed out a line that I really liked: ‘Our future is our history,'” he recalls. “That song is the truth. I had my bags from the airport and parked them into the corner. I didn’t even open them.”
“Still the Same” became a gateway for this year’s “Bigger,” which includes a tearjerker about appreciating your mother and a school-shooting ballad, “Tuesday’s Broken,” which begins with this striking line: “Yesterday, hell rained down.” The Swift infidelity duet almost plays like comic relief for the band’s most weathered and thoughtful album.