Down Near Sugarland
For a four-month period when I was 20, my two best friends were 21. This enabled them to go see 21+ shows at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur and then mercilessly rub it in. One of the bands they kept raving about was a duo called Kristian & Andrew. They gave me a cassette, and I quickly got what they were hearing—even with just two guitars and vocals, the songs felt anthemic. It was arena folk, busting the seams of a tiny venue. I became a regular; Kristian Bush and Andrew Hyra became Billy Pilgrim, signed a record deal and had a modest radio hit.
Still, I never sat as close to Kristian onstage at the intimate Eddie’s as I did at the Fox Theatre last night. Somehow, when we showed the usher our tickets in row CC, he said they had new tickets for us at a side table. The woman looked at the new set of tickets and asked us, “Do you think you’re worthy of the front row?” One of my companions said, “No, but we’ll take them anyway.”
Kristian is now one-half of the duo Sugarland, a band that sells more records than just about all the indie bands I listen to combined. When my friend’s kids ask her to play Sugarland in the car, she just flips through the Atlanta country stations. Somebody’s probably playing them right now.
After Billy Pilgrim broke up and we launched Paste, I got to know Kristian a little bit. He spent time at the office advising us on our short-lived record label (we never managed to make any money but we did discover a 17-year-old Andy Hull and his Manchester Orchestra). Kristian had been through it all with Billy Pilgrim and had a knack for navigating the music industry. So when he told me one day about his country project, I took him seriously, particularly after hearing the track “Baby Girl.” He and a couple of other local musicians, Kristen Hall and Jennifer Nettles, had formed a band. “We’re going to make an album of all hits and sign with a major label,” he said with complete confidence. “This is going to put my kids through college.”
His kids are still young, but the college fund is looking secure. Everything happened just as he’d scripted. Nashville quickly saw the potential of a pair of gifted songwriters who could play their own instruments and a frontwoman with a voice as big as the cowboy hats they started to wear. I saw them play The Variety Playhouse just before they signed with Universal. The next time I saw Kristian, he’d just found out he was going to be on Sesame Street.
Success happened quickly and it happened in a world he hadn’t been a part of. But none of it seems contrived. Kristian is one of the sweetest people I’ve met, and doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body, so going from the folk-rock world to the glam of Nashville only allowed him to play up his earnest sentiments. Every night he and Jennifer take the stage, they have a little routine. “People say I’m so lucky to get to tour all over and play these songs,” she says. “And I look out at all of you smiling and singing along and say, ‘Damn right!’” It’d feel schlocky if either of them broke their smiles once during the set. Only Josh Ritter seems to have more fun up on stage than Sugarland’s central pair.
So while it’s been close to two decades since I listened to country radio with any regularity, last night was as much fun for me as the recent LCD Soundsystem show, and that says a lot. My wife, who loves Sugarland, and I got a surprise close-up view of a friend’s success. The steam-punk stage dressing was as artful and impressive as anything I’ve seen in a long time (detailed enough to include a bass guitar with a fake analog gauge), and Sugarland is still cranking out albums full of hits. They played the brand new one, The Incredible Machine straight through and the hometown crowd was already singing along. Then they came back on stage and played “Baby Girl,” that first big hit that made them famous. It’s the story of a woman who dreamed about making it big and asks her mom for some money to keep her going. She becomes a star, just like she knew she would. It’s a song that was written before anyone had heard of them, but they knew, too. And they were right.