The Sweet Rush of Sugarland

Music Features Sugarland
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Sugarland dashed onto the country-music landscape with the infectious, bounding energy of a toddler on a candy-bar high. Shortly after an initial writing session in guitarist/vocalist Kristen Hall’s basement, the band sold out its first gig at seminal Atlanta acoustic club, Eddie’s Attic. Regionally, Sugarland emerged as a new supergroup, and the combined strength of the individual members’ audiences led to more sold-out performances throughout the Southeast.

Hall had become a fixture in Atlanta’s singer/songwriter scene and had collaborated with the Indigo Girls. Mandolin player/vocalist Kristian Bush had already experienced some major-label success as half of the acoustic-rock duo Billy Pilgrim in the early ’90s. And lead vocalist Jennifer Nettles fronted Atlanta rock acts like Soul Miner’s Daughter and the Jennifer Nettles Band to thriving success around the Southeast.

Fiddle, mandolin, steel guitar and three-part vocal harmonies give Sugarland the requisite twang. But the presence of three veteran songwriters separates the group from the crop of mainstream country music. All of the 11 songs from the band’s major-label debut, Twice the Speed of Life, were written by the band, a rarity in the genre.

While it was a conscious decision by the trio to write country songs, Hall adds that it’s not that much of a departure. “On every solo album I’ve made, you’ll find some country flavor—mandolins, fiddle, etc.—and at least one really country-sounding song. Same is true with Jennifer. And, if you softened the fever-pitched delivery of Billy Pilgrim songs, I think you’d find it there, too.”

“It’s music inspired by our daily lives; the mundane and day-to-day is celebrated, both the sacred and profane,” Nettles says, referencing the title of a Soul Miner’s Daughter album. “Emotionally, the song ‘Something More’ is very special in that it was inspired by the life of my late father-in-law. He lived life to the fullest and I wanted to write a song honoring that type of life-celebrating philosophy. Out of the grief of his loss we ended up writing a song that celebrates life.”

Success has come quickly for Sugarland. After a courting process by the majors, the band settled at Mercury, and the label brought in Trisha Yearwood producer Garth Fundis.

“We are quite lucky to have worked with Garth,” says Bush. “He used our arrangements and our instrumentation choices, but most importantly he used our songs. … He brought in some incredible musicians to help us out. I am still in shock about just how much he believes in this band.”

While they share many of the same musical influences, all three songwriters are quick to note, as Bush concludes, that it’s the slight differences in style and background that create the unique chemistry and confidence in Sugarland. “I believe we’re moving this fast because no one ever convinced us that we couldn’t,” says Bush. “So much of success has to do with what you can [imagine] for yourself. We just fixed it in our minds that this was all possible.”