Everybody in the nudie suit-wearing crowd knows who Sugarland is by now; if you don’t, you’ve probably been living in a van down by the river. But ask the average fan who’s in the band, and you might get a few different responses. That’s because lead singer Jennifer Nettles is the beautiful, confident Southern accent behind the Sugar-brand, the one you hear on No. 1 singles like ‘Stay’ and ‘Want To.’ Most hardly bat an eye at Nettles’ bandmate, Kristian Bush—the token “country dude” in the outfit—who sort of picks and grins, sings a backing vocal from time to time, and stays out of sight. Would it surprise you, then, to learn that Bush co-founded the band and actually hired Nettles?
Bush had been kicking around the professional music scene since his rock band, Billy Pilgrim, signed to Atlantic Records in 1992. But after a pair of albums in ’94 and ’95 failed to scratch the surface, Bush decided to switch horses in midstream and found a country band. “At the time, I sounded more like Steve Earle, and that hadn’t hit commercial radio yet; [it] was more like Josh Turner or early Dierks Bentley, these really baritone country singers,” remembers Bush. Hence, the search for a lead singer. The way Bush tells it, he and his partner, Kristen Hall (no longer in Sugarland), held a series of auditions, stipulating that they were looking not only for singers, but also co-songwriters. “You’ll see a lot of other names on that first record as co-writers that you may have never heard of; they were the other people that auditioned for the band,” explains Bush. But it was audition No. 5, Nettles, that knocked his cowboy boots off. On only their second day together, they would polish off ‘Baby Girl,’ a song about moving to the city, dreaming of hitting it big and then doing it. ‘Baby Girl’ would peak at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and stick around for 46 straight weeks, a record at the time. The band has since gone on to a string of No. 1’s and won a Grammy.
Now on a brief hiatus, Bush is up to his old bag of tricks—but in a slightly different context. As he puts it, he’s “starting over,” writing all the songs and manning lead-singer duties. You can hear it all on Southern Gravity, his 12-song solo debut, which is chalk-full of the kind of hooky, anthemic country gems he’s been churning out with Sugarland for the past 13 years. Take a gander at the love-song single, ‘Light Me Up.’ Catch him doing his version of ‘Baby Girl’ (and more) on tour. But Made Man is all about the hit-stories, y’all. And in lassoing our first country artist, we went big and down home. So 11 years to the week of the band’s major label debut, Twice the Speed of Life, we present a peek under the hood of Sugarland’s ‘Baby Girl.’
“I’m just like you, man; we bit off the impossible. Every day that it happens again, I have to pinch myself.”
You are the grandson of A.J. Bush of Bush’s Baked Beans fame. Does that mean you’ve met Duke, the Bush’s Baked Beans dog?
[Laughs] The dog is based on my dad’s dog, Buster. I can tell you what I remember; I was young; they sold the company when I was 10 or 11. In the South, there’s this tradition of having an oil painting commissioned of your children. It’s [done by] whoever your local painter is. [He or she] would paint each of the children in the family, and you would hang [the portraits] on your wall, no matter what your socioeconomic [background]. Whoever the lady was that did the oil paintings in the small town that we lived in, where the [Bush’s] plant was—Chestnut Hill, Tennessee—ran out of kids to do, so [my family] decided to get the dog painted. That’s where the beginning of the joke started. Then when the company changed hands, the oil painting of the dog [stayed], and some advertising agency probably made all [the rest] up.
Your solo record has been out for a while now. How are fans responding to the new material?
They’re doing even better than I’d hoped. It’s a risk putting out an album where nobody knows what I sound like when I sing. You’ve got to realize that while you might be tempted to look at this album through the lens of Sugarland, there are not a lot of people who, when they hear it, make the association immediately. But once you start doing it, it feels like somebody let you in on a secret. Suddenly, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute! That totally sounds like Sugarland, except who’s that guy singing?’ I don’t know how often you get to pull apart an active band’s DNA that’s still working, you know?
So Sugarland hasn’t broken up or anything?
Oh, no! Not at all. We’re on a break right now; Jennifer’s starting a family, and she wanted to put out a solo record. And honestly, the record company heard the [solo] music I was doing and was like, ‘Would you consider putting this on the radio?’ And I said, ‘That would be great; just don’t mess up my band.’ And they said, ‘You and Sugarland can both be on the radio at the same time; one doesn’t take the other one’s place.’
Let’s talk about ‘Baby Girl.’ I’m not trying to make trouble or anything, but the song’s opening riff sounds an awful lot like the Counting Crows’ ‘St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream,’ from the band’s 1999 album This Desert Life. Are you guys fans of the band, and do you know that song?
[Counting Crows’] August and Everything After and my first Billy Pilgrim record came out in the same couple of months. I’ve been a big fan for a long time; I love those guys. But interestingly enough, the opening lick for that song changed, like, three times. I re-recorded ‘Baby Girl’ maybe four times? I always struggled with what that melody was going to be, and we landed on that very, very last-minute. The funny part about that is if you go to iTunes and buy ‘Baby Girl’ right now, you’ll see that the metadata that’s encoded on it says, like, ‘Remix #2.’ The record company forgot to change it on our highest-selling single ever.
That’s the one I listened to on Spotify. So there are alternate versions of ‘Baby Girl’ around somewhere?
Yeah, you could probably dig ’em up. It was one of the earliest songs that started to react with people. I recorded most of that stuff in Atlanta before we even went to Nashville and re-recorded it for a Sugarland record.
I think it’s cool that ‘Baby Girl’ is sung from the perspective of a woman, and the chorus is a letter home, which I assumed was being written from L.A.
Well, I was messing around with distance: [quotes lyrics] ‘Two thousand miles and one left turn’ was the idea that somebody had a dream and they were going to L.A. or coming to Nashville. But it does put it into perspective; we were thinking about Nashville. You gotta remember that American Idol had just started, so this song landed on top of the urban ethos of ‘You can make it if you just go and win a competition.’ This song was kind of preaching the difference, which is ‘I’m going to go out and earn this success, one night at a time.’
One lyric that strikes me as potentially controversial is: ‘Girl, you’ll remember what your knees are for,’ in the second verse. It could mean begging, or something a lot more sexually explicit. Did you get any flack from the label about that line?
[Laughs] That was the only thing that I asked them about when I walked in and they were like, ‘This is our single.’ I said, ‘Are you sure? Do you want me to do something about that line?’ Because it is very much a Chrissie Hynde moment; you’re saying both things at the same time. They said, ‘Don’t change it.’ I remember getting nervous about it, [because] I wasn’t a woman; I wasn’t going to sing that. But playing it out there, it really had to be Jennifer’s choice on whether that was something that she wanted to do. When we would perform [it], she would put her hands together in prayer, when she sang that line, to get people off that innuendo. It’s kind of cool that it’s made it this far, and nobody really realized that. And I don’t think everybody realizes it at the same time, but songs are supposed to tell the truth. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Speaking of Counting Crows, they scored a hit with ‘Mr. Jones’ back in ’93, which was about wanting to be a famous rock star. Is ‘Baby Girl’ Sugarland’s version of that song?
Yeah, I think it is, but it’s more about ‘If I ever make it, I’d love to be able to pay my parents back for what they did for me.’ You got to remember that ‘Baby Girl’ was written when nobody had ever heard us. So it was a wish. It wasn’t like a daydream at a coffeeshop, which I think ‘Mr. Jones’ is, for me—like a guy screwing around with an idea of a dream. ‘If this ever happens, this is how it would go.’ ‘Baby Girl’ seems to me like a child writing back to their parents to say, ‘You know what, I’m out here; can you just send me a little more money, because I’ve got this idea—a big idea—and I know I can make it happen?’ And then within the song, something actually turns. It’s like, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but it totally happened, and in this envelope is a bunch of cash, and it’s a thank-you for what you did.’ I wanted to say thanks to my parents, just as much as Jennifer wanted to say it to hers.
Have you given back to your parents since you got famous?
Well, absolutely. Sadly, my mom did not live to see this band succeed; she was a big fan [of Billy Pilgrim], and she passed away right as I started Sugarland. It was one of the reasons I started it. But yeah, Jennifer bought her mom a house. You do everything that you can possibly do, because whenever this stuff happens, we’re so aware that it wasn’t like this yesterday. If you’re in any of these high-dream, high-challenge jobs, if you look at it over time, you probably would’ve been better off coming out of school and getting the job as the accountant; you would’ve made more money than I will. But if you average out over all of the years, the joy of it for me is watching people watch me [be] so happy. ’Cause really, I’m just like you, man; we bit off the impossible. Every day that it happens again, I have to pinch myself.
I guess I’m still waiting for my first No. 1 single. Speaking of which, ‘Baby Girl’ made it all the way to No. 2. Even though it spent 46 weeks on the charts, don’t you sort of wish it went to No. 1? Who kept you out of the top spot?
[Laughs] I’ll tell you exactly who kept us out of the top spot: It was Craig Morgan with ‘What I Love About Sundays.’ I love that song of his, and it just wouldn’t budge, man. Strangely enough, [‘Baby Girl’] won some sort of award for the longest charting country single of all time, at the time. But I remember when they told us that, I was like, ‘Huh. We’ve been playing this song for two years straight; I can’t believe that it took this long to start a career.’ It’s not normally that way, but in the case that you do take that long, you are generating fans via the megaphone of the radio like you would’ve never been able to [do so] had you been a flash in the pan. So there’s good fortune in that very, very long road. That’s why I tell people to go the long way as often as you can. It didn’t bother me that it wasn’t a No. 1 song, because I was a songwriter; songwriters get paid on the song, not [how it] performs for radio, so I got paid the same for a No. 2 that I did for a No. 1.
I noticed that Sugarland had a track on the 2012 Obama-Biden playlist. Does that mean you’ll be playing rallies for Hillary Clinton next year?
[Laughs; sounds shocked] Nobody has asked us anything! What track did they put on their playlist?
‘Everyday America.’ (‘Stand Up’ is on there too.)
We wrote it for Good Morning America, if that tells you anything; we had their theme song for a year. But it’s interesting they used that, because that song has a little bit of ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ on it; if you listen to it close, it’s not saying what you think it does.