By Tricia Despres
It’s a Wednesday morning, just a few minutes before 10 o’clock, and Kristian Bush’s mind already finds itself in just about a million different places.
“I honestly don’t know how I got myself here,” the playwright-songwriter-producer-musician admits quietly. “There are many lanes on the road I’m going down right now. But I thrive on that. As long as I can keep myself healthy, I can navigate all of those lanes.”
First up on this particular morning is coming up with the setlist for an upcoming co-headlining tour he is doing alongside fellow storyteller and music maker Rita Wilson. Later, he plans to take a meeting to discuss a new project he is constructing some songs for.
“I surround myself with a lot of paper,” Bush laughs. “In the last four months, I have tried to keep notebooks. I number them all so I can then go back to the day when we talked about this or that and I can remind myself what the heck is going on. My days are full.”
And on this full day, if he can find the time before the sun goes down, he will direct his thoughts to Sugarland, the group he formed alongside Jennifer Nettles and former member Kristen Hall back in 2002.
“Jennifer and I are constantly in different lanes at different times, but when our creative cycles are able to sync up with one another, there is nothing like it,” says Bush, who currently spends a good chunk of his time also serving as a producer for country artists such as Lindsay Ell, who joined Sugarland on tour last summer, when the duo first came to Ravinia. “We speak without speaking.”
After wrapping up last year’s “Still the Same” Tour, the two once again retreated to their individual careers for a bit. In fact, Nettles made waves earlier this year with the release of her revealing single “I Can Do Hard Things.” And we already know Bush has much on his plate. But eventually, they always find their back to the comfort of one another.
“This year, Sugarland has 12 to 15 shows,” Bush says quietly, while emphasizing each word a little more than the last. Among those is a hotly anticipated return to Ravinia on June 30. “But next year, well, it could be gigantic.”
The tease is enough to put any true-blue Sugarland fan into an emotional tailspin. Yet, for now, that’s all he will divulge.
And that’s okay. That’s what Sugarland fans have gotten used to. They thrive on the excitement of the unknown.
There is no doubt that the statistics surrounding Sugarland are quite impressive. Since the band’s inception in 2002, Sugarland has sold over 10 million albums domestically and have earned seven number-one singles to date, including “All I Want to Do,” “It Happens,” and the tear-inducing “Already Gone.” On top of all that, their music has accumulated well more than a quarter-billion streams, making them one of the most popular country music duos of all time.
In 2018, after a multi-year hiatus that had the two pursuing their own individual projects both personally and professionally, Nettles and Bush came back together with a vengeance, courtesy of their sixth studio album Bigger. Bigger marked Sugarland’s first new album in eight years, with Bush and Nettles co-writing nearly all of the songs on the album.
“Our hopefulness and our sparkiness and our joy are things I think we do uniquely well, especially in the country format,” Nettles said last year about the sunny demeanor demonstrated on a portion of the album. “We offer that in a unique way.”
“My daughter is turning 13,” Bush added at the time. “I wondered if there was a way to help her through the world she’s growing up in. There are songs on this album that are inspired by the idea of that conversation, and I hope they will speak to people of all ages, no matter who they are or what they’re facing in life.”
One of the album’s standout songs was the hit single “Babe,” featuring the addictive vocals of Taylor Swift. The Mad Men–inspired video would go on to receive the trifecta of ACM, CMA, and CMT Award nominations.
The widespread success of the album as a whole also led the duo to get back on the road again for the aforementioned “Still the Same” Tour.
“It was a time when we could feel that our fans needed us to have that conversation with them, that conversation that we can only have when we are standing up there on that stage, that ‘how are you’ conversation that we have always been able to have with our fans through our music,” recalls Bush. “It had been a while, and it felt really good.”
And yes, it felt so good that they wanted more.
“Now more than ever before, our focus is about our purpose,” says Bush. “It’s not about us. None of this is about us. We are just the vessel. It’s about carrying a torch for our fans. It’s about being accountable to our audience and instinctively knowing what they need. It’s about more than the performance of a song. It’s about what this combination of two people can accomplish together for others.”
And what their fans just might need now more than ever before is guidance, love, and the camaraderie that is found between Sugarland and their fan base.
“Everyone I know is dealing with the same issue,” Bush says. “Everyone is asking themselves, ‘Where do I fit?’ Everyone I know is uncomfortable in our current situation of how life works at the moment. Sometimes your soul needs some encouragement.”
And for years that encouragement has come through the powerful songs that come alive during Sugarland’s live shows. Songs such as “Little Miss” and “Baby Girl” and “Incredible Machine” that stir the soul a bit more than expected.
“A Sugarland show is a magical experience, and we always try to be respectful of that experience,” Bush says. “You can listen to our music [anywhere], but being at our show adds a whole new layer, a multi-dimensional layer that you just can’t get elsewhere. I mean, it’s a sensory-wide experience and yes, it has a spiritual element. It’s just a product of who Jennifer and I are as a team. It’s an unintended product of what we are together.”
During their stop at Ravinia in 2018, Sugarland created that spiritual experience with thought-provoking performances, including their cover of the Patty Griffin anthem “Tony.”
“A Sugarland performance can lay out like a comfortable blanket, but then, if we do things right, we can also have you walking out of here asking questions of yourself that you don’t know the answers to,” says Bush. “But you soon will. It will all make sense if you let the music in and let the music work through you.”
When it comes right down to it, it’s all about communication between a band and their fans, a communication that sometimes goes sight unseen at a place like Ravinia.
“Ravinia is different in the way that there is a whole other world happening on the lawn,” chuckles Bush. “You are not only communicating with the people that are in front of you, but also to those [thousands more] that you can’t see. But we are really there [with them].”
“I’ll never forget the excitement Sugarland generated last year with its Ravinia debut. Of course, Jennifer Nettles has one of the all-time great voices, no matter the genre, and the atmosphere in the park was electric. I knew that I wanted to book them again right away, but I didn’t know that, at the same time, the band was falling in love with Ravinia and also wanted to return,” says Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman, who programs all of the festival’s concerts. “We’re thrilled to welcome them back in a summer featuring two more country headliners, Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum [in its festival debut]. We’re looking forward to that same level of magic amalgamation between artist and venue.”
But if anyone knows how to play to their crowd, it’s Sugarland.
“We are a band that tends to expand to fit the venue we are playing, whether that venue is small or large,” says Bush. “Whether we are in a stadium or in a 100 seat club, we have complete confidence in the show that we can put on. We expand and contract based on the experience.”
Sort of like a beating heart.
“Sugarland has always been like a beating heart,” Bush explains. “It doesn’t work if you don’t let it rest. You need to let it contract and expand, and that’s exactly what we have let it do throughout our career.”
And yes, Bush knows that heart very well.
He is a father, after all.
“It’s a very tough time to be a father,” says the father of two. “Having that sort of responsibility in the current culture is a challenge when its resting on your shoulders. Fathers have to start owning their parenting. They need to start being responsible for parenting the daughters out there and supporting them and be an example to them and have conversations with them. When you make mistakes, you have to own them. Parenting teenagers is like a whole new level of a video game.”
He lets out a sigh.
“I have a 14-year-old daughter,” he says matter-of-factly. “We often find ourselves in a precarious place. Her heart sometimes goes dark and everything is a standoff. You just have to listen to them, even if they are not speaking.”
Just like Sugarland starts listening, finding the pulse, every time they get onstage. ▪
Tricia Despres is a Chicago-area freelance entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Taste of Country, and a number of local, regional, and national publications. Follow her on Twitter at @CHIWriter.