Sugarland’s Kristian Bush on dBs fandom, the munificence of Amy Ray, and surveying a new country landscape

by Ryan Snyder

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham compared his run of solo shows a little over a year ago to a small machine that’s only made possible by the success of the big machine; events that are as indulgent for him as they are for the people who pay to see him. Kristian Bush, one-half of the hiatal country powerhouse Sugarland, is using his small machine as a means to tune up the big machine during its downtime. It’s not just one man and a guitar like Buckingham’s presentation, however.

While Jennifer Nettles attends to her new son, Bush is taking a session-quality band on the road that includes bluegrass songbirds Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe, longtime Better Than Ezra drummer Travis McNabb, Sheryl Crow bassist Tim Smith, and Train keyboardist (and his brother) Brandon Bush. Bush will be revisiting his Billy Pilgrim catalog, an indie-folk augury that he conceived alongside songwriter Andrew Hyra, as well as the torrent of solo material that he’s currently releasing online via his Music Monday series. Their presentation, he says, is a means of connecting the threads of older and future works, but also showing audiences both of his speeds: the subdued singer-songwriter version and the jarring arena-level rocker — in this case, scaled down for intimate environments without sacrificing its bravado.

Y!W: There’s been almost 30 songs released on SoundCloud over the past year via your Music Monday series. Is this leading up to an album?

KB: There is going to be an album and it’s going to be this year. In the previous years, my normal output is 25, 30 songs a year, which is pretty well on pace considering that Jennifer and I put out an album every two years. That’s 10 songs every two years and you normally leave 30 or 40 on the floor. In the past year, it’s been 160 or 180 songs. I feel compelled to share them, because it would break my heart to leave them on the floor. I’ve got plenty of material and the internet is here. How cool is it to be alive at this time in the world? We’re not putting them out for commerce; we’re putting them out just because I’m a fan, too.

Y!W: When it’s time to fire up the Sugarland machine once again, are there reservations that the contemporary country music landscape will look much different than it did when you left it?

KB: I hope so. I love the idea of that. I kind of sit on the other side of that boat, like, check it out, we’re having a conversation about the state of country music. I’ve been caught in the front, where you’re the explorer and you have the arrows in your hand, but I love how wide the genre is, even when people say it doesn’t sound like their country music. There’s a world where everyone can have their own country music.

Y!W: Jennifer seemed to tacitly acknowledge that by hiring agreat hip-hop producer in Rick Rubin to produce her solo album.

KB: Well, really, just working with great producers is a waythat you become better as an artist. On my first Billy Pilgrim record, I got towork with Hugh Padgham, who did a lot of Police and Bowie records, and Ilearned more from that guy than you can imagine. In my experience, pleasing themachine is one of those things where you really have to take your own temperature.The most dependable response you can get is from a fan, and they’re the oneswho dictate what is popular.’ 

Y!W: Revisiting that earliest work of yours, like St. Christopher’s Crossing, it really sounds like a portent of the recent injection of folk music into pop culture.

KB: It does, and it’s exciting. I remember the first time I bought a Mumford record, Jennifer and I immediately started covering one of their songs. I have always been obsessed with how much you can fill a room with very few things. If you just have a guitar, a banjo and a mandolin, if you just close your eyes and have enough heart, you’re the Replacements, man. That’s one of the beautiful things about this resurgence — and it’s funny to call allowing folk music into pop culture that — at the time when we were doing that St. Christopher’s Crossing record, it was brand new for us. That was ’91 or ’92. It was strange then to be walking into arenas and doing that in arenas in front of Melissa Etheridge, but I’m so excited it’s happening now. And f—, why didn’t I ever think about hitting the kick drum?

Y!W: You revealed some other influences when you shared a songwriting credit on the dBs last album. How did that partnership originate?

KB: My brother had to go play a Train show in the middle of a Sugarland tour and asked if he could go get a sub. There’s always a joke in the industry that you shouldn’t get someone to sub out for you that’s better than you because they might take your gig. Well, he sends me Peter Holsapple and I just about peed my pants. I’m a huge dBs fan, so I got a little anxious. By the time he showed up I had the cool together and after sound check, I asked him, “Would you be interested in writing a song? It’s kind of on my bucket list.” So we went to the bus, sat down and we wrote it quite quickly. Every time he opened his mouth to sing whatever words I was making up, it was suddenly like I was listening to a dBs record. After, we became friends and I confessed my fanboy-ness. About 10 months later, he got in touch and said, “I’m about to go play this out with Caitlin Cary, and I think we’re going to track this song.” Then a little while later he asked for my publishing information because he was going to put it on a dBs record. I about fell out.

Y!W: I thought for sure there was going to be some sort of triangulation with Amy Ray there, who just dropped a solo album of great country tunes. Given what a powerful force she was in jumpstarting your career, is there a chance of your paths cross again?

KB: Oh, in a heartbeat. I have a lot of footnoting to do with the Indigo Girls. I pawned a guitar to fund the recording of St. Christopher’s Crossing, so we had no money and no way to get it out. The radio stations had stopped using carts and started using

CDs, but she gave us a check to manufacture some CDs. It was the most proud moment in the world for me to pay her back like a year later. Their influence musically, and just systemically, what they stand for: music that’s accessible for all people, and that you and a guitar can do it, and two voices are bigger than the sum of their parts, and when you make it, turn around and pull someone else up.

Kristian Bush will perform at the Blind Tiger on Thursday. !