The Country Music industry is a proverbial big tent with a variety of styles, performers and fans. But Sugarland, the 2010 CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, is expanding that already spacious tent and changing people’s perceptions of the genre by sprinkling traces of reggae, arena rock, new wave and alternative rock throughout their adventurous new album, The Incredible Machine.
The catchy lead single, “Stuck Like Glue,” written by Sugarland’s Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles along with Shy Carter and Kevin Griffin, went to Country radio on July 26 and established itself as the best-ever Billboard Hot 100 entry for a Country duo or group, with 93,000 downloads in its first week. By early October, it had sold 584,000 downloads and cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. When Mercury Nashville dropped the album Oct. 19, it powered immediately to No. 1 on both the Country and Top 200 charts.
An ambitious campaign had been launched to promote the album. Back in April, the duo began its “The Incredible Machine Tour,” an eye-popping spectacle bristling with theatrical elements. The stage design relied heavily on steampunk, with imagery that featured wood, brass, Victorian machinery and steam power. This retro-futurist aesthetic is mirrored by the design of their album cover, which consists entirely of pipes and gadgets designed by Lightborne Inc. in Cincinnati and cleverly arranged to spell out “Sugarland” against a stark white background.
“It’s certainly atypical for a Country band to have a tour named after an album that’s not even out yet,” said Ken Robold, Executive VP and GM, UMG Nashville. “But we’re all for artists stretching the boundaries. As a label, we respect Sugarland’s artistic vision. It’s been fascinating to watch Jennifer and Kristian progress as performers, writers and entertainers. We love having them here.”
Sugarland had sold more than 8 million albums. Their debut, 2004’s Twice the Speed of Life and their sophomore album, Enjoy the Ride, each are triple Platinum. The double- Platinum studio album Love on the Inside was followed by the live concert CD/DVD package Live on the Inside and the holiday-themed Gold and Green, consisting of standards and originals, co-written by Bush and Nettles.
Prior to release of the new album, Mercury Nashville sold preorders at Sugarland concerts. Fans could go to the merchandise table to purchase a laminate with a detachable card containing a download code, allowing the buyer to get the digital album the day of its release. Sugarland also did a countdown at iTunes, offering one track for sale each week for three weeks leading up to the album’s release.
Sugarland’s success online and at brick-and-mortar retail matches their triumphs on the road, where they routinely draw 10,000 fans per show. “The Incredible Machine Tour” concluded on Oct. 16 at Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“This album is designed to play in very large places and to communicate with a large group of people,” said Bush. “When you have an instrument as powerful and as graceful as Jennifer’s voice, you don’t want to tiptoe in. You really go for it! And those types of songs are often where Jennifer and I intersect musically.”
Bush and Nettles co-wrote every track on The Incredible Machine except for “Shine the Light,” a Nettles solo composition that spotlights her piano work. In the past, Bush played acoustic guitar and mandolin on Sugarland albums; this time out, he also played all the electric guitar parts.
Another change involves Bush’s role as a vocalist. He sings the album’s moody centerpiece, “The Incredible Machine (Interlude),” and trades lead vocals with Nettles on the rousing anthem “Stand Up.” “I don’t know how many people have really heard me sing before,” Bush admitted. “For fans of the band, it’s like a whole new layer is peeled back.”
Other tracks on the album include “All We Are,” which has a chant-along chorus, and the revved-up “Wide Open,” written specifically for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Sugarland’s critical acclaim and commercial accomplishments, which include seven No. 1 singles, clearly result from the fertile creative partnership between Bush and Nettles.
“Kristian and I have learned to trust each other a lot more, and I think we’ve learned to trust ourselves more,” Nettles explained. “Our biggest strength is the encouragement that we offer each other, to really go to those far-reaching places. Whenever we’re in the writing process, there’s no idea that’s dumb. There’s no idea that shouldn’t be said, because even if it’s not the right line or the right chord progression or the right whatever, it may be the next step to get to where we want to go. We’ve developed a nice volley with each other.”
“So far, it has worked wonderfully,” Bush confirmed. “In the story of who we are, this album is more us than we’ve ever been.”
One industry veteran who has frequently witnessed this volley is Byron Gallimore. He co-produced the new album with Bush and Nettles, his fourth project with the duo. “Jen and Kristian work on the road together all the time, and they have a real camaraderie,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch them in the studio, the way they work together and feed off of each other. It’s not one person doing more than the other. It’s as equal a thing as I could ever imagine. They know and understand a lot of the same music and therefore they complement each other. They just work really, really well together.”
In June, Sugarland kicked-off a Webisode series, “The Week in Review,” which is posted at www.YouTube.com/Sugarland. Directed by Valarie Bienas, it offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of Sugarland offstage and on the road. One installment, posted July 12, depicts them and their crew sipping wine at the Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, Calif. The Aug. 23 episode, featuring a poignant voiceover by Bush, shows Sugarland and Little Big Town rehearsing the Marc Cohn hit “Walking in Memphis” and then performing it onstage in Memphis. The hilarious Sept. 28 edition includes a “Star Wars” parody, complete with the onscreen text “May the Sugar Force Be with You” and some “security guards” dressed as intergalactic storm troopers.
“Valarie Bienas is a wonderful documentarian, videographer and photographer,” said Nettles. “I love the way she sees us. I love what she captures of us. It feels authentic. She thinks very much the way we do, and we are happily able to say, ‘Here, you capture it and edit it.’ We give her our trust, and she does a great job.”
In addition to the standard 11-track version of The Incredible Machine, Mercury Nashville issued a deluxe edition, which includes a CD and a DVD. The video content consists of a Bienas-directed, 40-minute documentary, “Blood, Love, Hope, Lust, Steam,” as well as the music video for “Stuck Like Glue” and footage of a live version of the album’s title track.
Many elements of both the album and its tour push outside the box for Country acts, whether it’s the cover art, the rock influence, the quote from author Mark Helprin in the liner notes or the yoga mats sold at Sugarland concerts. This is Country Music made for and by people who embrace numerous aspects of pop culture.
“Kristian and I always say that our creative minds are ahead of our conscious minds,” Nettles noted. “As I look back now at the lyrics of the song ‘The Incredible Machine,’ it definitely feels like a metaphor for where we are right now in our career. We are at a creative rebirthing. When I think of those first lines — ‘Feels like I’m flying / wings made of light / brand new and shinin’ / like a shot rung out through the night’ — that seems to me to be a beautiful visual for where we are. We have these beautiful, new butterfly wings of light. It feels like we’re in this new place. There is some beauty and vulnerability in that creative space, and I love that. It has some risks but not really — not with our fans.”
In addition to the devotion of their fans, Sugarland has won the respect and admiration of peers. Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town, who often has toured with Sugarland, said, “Nobody writes fun, upbeat, make-you-feel-good-about-your-life-and-yourself music better than Jennifer and Kristian. Nobody. That’s just their thing. They’re so good at it.”
Gallimore sees Sugarland as part of a trend towards musical diversity within the genre.
“A lot of new acts, like Sugarland and Lady Antebellum, are doing music they grew up loving,” he observed. “You hear their influences in the songs they write. Slowly, over time, our format evolves and takes in a few new things. We still have traditional Country Music, which is wonderful too. I think that’s what makes Country radio so interesting. We have a pretty wide deal going on now, so every song doesn’t sound exactly alike when you’re riding down the road, listening.”
Indeed, no radio listener is likely to confuse Alan Jackson with Sugarland, but that variety is a hallmark of today’s Country Music. There’s plenty of action in the center and, thanks to Sugarland among others, along the outer edges as well.