This story originally appeared in Issue #5 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2003, as part of our first 4 To Watch, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
In 1993, 23-year-old Kristian Bush signed a two-record deal with Atlantic as part of the duo Billy Pilgrim. Ten years later, he’s expecting lightening to strike a second time. Joined by two more veteran singer-songwriters, Kristen Hall and Jennifer Nettles, the new band, Sugarland, is a far cry from Pilgrim’s mix of grand, hooky modern rock and coffeehouse folk.
“We’re going to be on a major label, probably out of Nashville or L.A., and they’re going to play us on country radio,” says Bush with a confidence that some of his friends have laughed at—until seeing the band live or hearing its debut, Premium Quality Tunes. “They’re gonna find us as the answer to that mysteriously little piece that joins alt.country and commercial country together. They can’t figure out that piece yet.”
Hall, who’s made her living mostly as a songwriter after spending the first half of the ’90s touring on her own or opening for the Indigo Girls, has always been intrigued by that intersection of country and rock ’n’ roll.
“I always thought Neil Young would have been country if he didn’t smoke pot,” she said. “[And] I love the Dixie Chicks. The first time I heard them, I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of my music with a twang. I could really lean in that direction.’”
When Hall started kicking the idea of a country band around with David LaBruyere, bass player for John Mayer, Bush joined his longtime friends with an idea for the song that would become Tunes’ “Tennessee.” When Hall put a full band together, they began the search for a singer. Jennifer Nettles was packing out theaters in the Southeast so they didn’t think she’d be an option.
“Everybody laughed me out of the room when I brought it up,” said Hall. “They [said], ‘Ah, yeah, like we can get her.’”
A late night conversation with Todd Van Sickel, the new owner of Atlanta’s acoustic venue Eddie’s Attic, convinced Hall to approach Nettles.
“I said, ‘Sure,’” Nettles recounted, chuckling. “‘I’ll try anything once. Let’s see.’ And I loved it.”
Sugarland has now overtaken all their solo careers and side projects, as the band has quickly built a following in Atlanta and interest from major labels. With more talented songwriters than seems fair, the songs indeed sound ready to wake up country radio.
“I feel like it’s really rhythmic,” said Nettles. “There’s a rhythm to the way we write the songs.”
“Yeah,” said Hall, laughing. “We get to the bridge and they all look at me.”
“Because usually Kristen’s writing the bridge about the time you’re writing the first note,” countered Bush. “She’s going, ‘ … I’ve got a great bridge for that song you’re about to write.”
From the writing sessions to the crowd reaction at shows, the band dynamic has reinvigorated all three artists. With the help of musicians who’ve collectively backed Shawn Mullins, Tift Merritt, Train, Ricky Skaggs, the Indigo Girls and John Mayer, it’s easy to buy into Bush’s confidence.
“I have every reason in the world to be a complete jaded lady,” said Hall. “And I have been. But the cool thing about Sugarland is [that] it really makes me childlike in my enthusiasm and my belief that we can make it…. It’s such a shot in the dark, but I feel very enthusiastic about this band.”