Country act Sugarland has returned from a hiatus with more support from heavy hitters in the country music fold than ever before. But that doesn't mean that there still wasn't an air of uncertainty surrounding the duo's homecoming.
The release of "Still the Same" in December marked the duo's first new song to land at country radio in seven years. A sabbatical from mainstream country music success for that long might spell the end of a performer's commercial career, whether the break was self-imposed or not.
But not for Sugarland. The upcoming June 8 release of their newest album, "Bigger," has become something of an event for the pair of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush.
The album's release is a joint venture between Big Machine Records and UMG (Universal Music Group) Nashville, marking the first time the companies have worked together to handle the distribution and promotion of an artist's album. While such pairings in the film industry have become somewhat commonplace, due to escalating costs associated with producing movies, the partnership here is less about softening the blow of disappointing sales and is much more to do with having fans in high places within Nashville.
"I like to giggle and say, 'Sugarland brings people together.' It doesn't matter who you are, we're the one thing you can agree on," Bush says with a laugh.
Bush spoke to The News & Observer just before the duo takes to the road on their largest tour to date, which includes a stop at Raleigh's PNC Arena Saturday.
The co-vocalist and guitar player for the act elaborates.
"Universal has our record contract, but Scott (Borchetta, President/CEO of Big Machine) was very passionate about wanting to help put this out, so everyone finally just came together to make this a group effort," Bush said.
That group effort is already beginning to pay off as one name on the Big Machine talent roster already has helped Sugarland make a big return to the Top 10 of the country charts. Taylor Swift co-wrote and is featured on their latest single, "Babe."
We talked to Bush about how Swift made her way onto the new album; how the pair's separation really was quite amicable; and singing on treadmills.
Q: How long have you two known Taylor Swift, and what brought her onto the new album?
A: When we were first starting out as an act in 2002, they put us on radio tours, where you just hit the road and visit every radio station in the land that will actually make time for you. Along the way, if you're lucky, you get to play shows. We had a unique experience where everyone began showing up to see us perform and had already memorized all of the words to our songs, which confused us, because we didn't even really have an album out.
Taylor was one of those fans who had bought our little homemade record. She also opened for us around that time, long before she became the superstar she is today. I guess she just stayed a fan, you know? (Borchetta) had told (Taylor) that there was a chance that we may be making an album for Big Machine, but that it had to be kept hush-hush at the time. So she immediately reached out and pitched a song to us. What's weird is that we've never — and I mean ever — taken a pitch from someone else for us to cut their song, because the two of us have always written our own material. But after listening to it we knew we were going to do it.
It was new territory for us, as having never recorded someone else's song before, now we had to worry about not messing it up. We recorded it on the last day in the studio, and sent it to her with a note asking that she tell us if she hated it, and she immediately responded after listening to it that she wanted to play a part in it (as a guest vocal) as well. It was a very organic way to have a collaboration.
Q: We had an opportunity to interview Jennifer about two years ago, and at that time it felt clear that the break Sugarland was taking was — for once — not something done out of the malice that band members can begin to feel for one another at a certain point.
A: If either of us had been on vacation during the past few years, it might have been a little more difficult to come back together, but we both were completely working around the clock. I've been making records for country radio for other artists (country female vocalists Lucy Hale and Lauren Alaina among them) during that time.
Jennifer has literally been honing her craft with her voice, and her acting, and how to tell a story. She hasn't slowed down, and neither have I, so our coming together was a reunion between two people with new ideas. She has a family now, and my kids are growing up, so we both have new passions for our work. It made for a very satisfying writing and recording experience.
Q: The current tour will be the largest the two of you have had to travel in recent years, with 48 cities currently scheduled for stops. How do you prepare for such an undertaking?
A: I'm still pretty old school, as I like to jump on the treadmill and see if I can sing all of the songs while I'm running. That's an old Mick Jagger trick; by the time you can sing the whole set, without missing a note while running, you're ready. When you run and sing, it forces you to control your breathing.
You're entertaining, and as I like to tell people, the entertainment business and music business are two different things. The music business happens in the writing room and studio, and the entertainment business happens on a stage. We don't use backing tracks in Sugarland, so our band is playing the entire show, and we sing everything live.
Jennifer doesn't miss (a note), which means people like me have to train. I don't have any shame in training as hard as I can.
Who: Sugarland with Brandy Clark and Clare Bowen
When: 7 p.m. May 26
Where: PNC Arena, 1400 Edwards Mill Road, Raleigh
Cost: $28 to $97
Info: 919-861-2300 or ThePNCArena.com