NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When the Grammy-award winning country duo Sugarland went back to the studio after a five-year hiatus, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush had a big secret to keep under wraps.
Pop superstar Taylor Swift, who shares the same Nashville-based Big Machine Records label with Sugarland, not only offered them a song she co-wrote but even wanted to sing harmony with them.
“That stuff was on lock down,” Nettles joked of the collaboration called “Babe,” which is now sitting in the Top 30 of Billboard's Hot Country chart.
Bush said the recording wouldn't have been released if they didn't get her approval. “If she didn't like it, then we weren't going to tell anybody,” Bush said.
Sugarland and Swift both broke out in Nashville about the same time in the early 2000s, both riding the wave of emotion-driven country pop and big live productions. After five studio albums, a prime-time TV special and two Grammy Awards, Sugarland announced a hiatus in 2012 as Nettles welcomed her first child, Magnus.
During the break, they both explored other musical roots, with Nettles acting on Broadway and on TV, and Bush working as a record producer. But last year, the two felt the ties that bind get a little closer and they found themselves back in the studio working on their first single in years called, “Still the Same.”
“We just had so much to say,” Nettles said. “And the flow of it was fast and easy.”
What came out of that was “Bigger,” their new album out Friday, and a new tour started last month.
They like to joke that while they were away, the genre passed through its bro-country movement. But a lot has changed in the American landscape that the two songwriters wanted to address. The new music is uplifting and interwoven with subtle nods to equality, the #MeToo movement, feelings of isolation and fear, bullying and gun violence.
The two spoke to The Associated Press recently after a short rehearsal in Nashville, Tennessee, where they were practicing some of the new songs they were getting ready to debut on tour. The answers are edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What was Taylor Swift's reaction to your version of her song?
Bush: We've never really done anybody else's songs. And it was even more nerve-wracking because you know she's really good at it and you really don't want to let somebody down.
Nettles: And she has really loyal fans.
Bush: And it was like, “If you don't like it, it's totally cool. It's totally fine.” And what was awesome is that she got back to us, and was like “I love it and I want to be a part of this.” That's the way music's supposed to work with artists.
Q. Is there a balance with the important messages that you weave into these songs?
Nettles: It's pretty simple because if you want to engage people, the best way to not do that is yell at them and make them feel bad about themselves. If you want to engage people, the best way to do it is to offer them a conversation in a way that might open them up and what a wonderful way to open people up through music.
Q. The strongest message on this album is a song that hasn't been released yet called “Tuesday's Gone,” which is about school shootings and bullying. Did you struggle with how to write this?
Bush: I was coming to visit Jennifer to write and I'd seen the newspaper in the back of the airplane, you know, and it was a school shooting that was in the northeast. And I just folded it up and put it back. I'm going to write Sugarland songs. I can't look at this. But I had to get it out. So I put it in my phone and I walked in the door and Jennifer is like, “How are you feeling? What are you doing? What's on your mind? What's on your heart?” And I was like, “Oh you're not (going to) like this, but we can't write this.” And she's like “Oh yeah? That's pretty awesome. Send that to me.”
Nettles: And it's super anthemic too because I had read this beautiful article about Ruby Sales. She's a civil rights activist and she has an amazing story. But in it she talked about really the question that we need, the human question that we need to ask each other is “Where does it hurt?”
Q. Do you think it's really hard being a parent when these things keep happening?
Bush: If you value a child and a kid or teenager, you can kind of get through anything. But if you devalue them, if you stop listening or you stop caring or you stop giving to them, then you're going to create people who end up creating these problems. You can find out it's the origination of the problem if you just try to be a better parent and see if we can start there and fix it in generations.