Sugarland finds musical inspiration from gospel to punk

It was one of those musical epiphanies that most dudes in his position have at some point, where his future path in life suddenly became illuminated like the flame from a struck match.

Kristian Bush was in the fifth grade, partaking in a student-exchange program that landed him in a boarding house in Europe.

The eldest son of the family he was staying with was baby-sitting the kids one night and he took them to a show that they had no business being at, considering their age: a spittle-soaked punk gig headlined by The Clash, with Adam and the Ants opening.

For a kid from a small town in Tennessee who had grown up playing the violin via the Suzuki Method, learning music at the same time he learned to speak, it was like standing in the face of a tornado, feeling the ground quake, daring not to move out of harm’s way.

“I had never seen anything like that, much less been in another country, much less seen anybody with gelatin in their hair,” chuckles Bush, future guitarist and singer for nouveau country duo Sugarland. “It was mind-bending. All I knew was Dolly Parton. But, man, when you hear ‘Police on My Back,’ you understand the power of one note, because it’s not the note’s power, it’s the guy’s right hand that is just playing in wild abandon. I was like, ‘Holy crap, I want to do that.’ ”

To connect the widely scattered dots that outline the rest of Bush’s musical education, a few more reference points are needed: the aforementioned Parton, who hails from his hometown of Sevierville, Tenn., and whom Bush used to see perform at the town’s high school gym in the late ’70s when she visited the city.

And then there were the shaky transmissions from some far off college radio station whose signal would bounce through the mountains and reach Bush if the weather was just so.

“If the clouds were right, you were hearing R.E.M., Green on Red and the Minutemen,” he says, “these bands I had no idea even existed.”

All these influences, along with the gospel-steeped, Linda Ronstadt-heavy musical tutelage of Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, manifest themselves in the band’s topsy-turvy repertoire.

After a trio of hit albums that established the group as one of Nashville’s most distinctive acts with their buoyant, plucky tunes often centered around Nettles’ ocean-size voice, the duo excavated the most deeply entrenched, dirt-clogged roots of their musical upbringing on their latest disc, “The Incredible Machine,” an album that seemingly owes as much to the power pop of The Cars and the Bic-in-the-air arena rock of Bon Jovi as it does Music City staples like Georges Strait and Jones.

Album opener “All We Are” sets a fittingly outsize tone: Amid cymbal splashes and ringing synth, Nettles’ voice leaps up, up, up and away before she literally pants her away around a funky guitar figure that crests into a gang vocal chorus.

The title track, up next, is equally anthemic, a piano-powered clarion call with Nettles singing of flying on wings of light.

From the finger-snappin,’ reggae-inflected knee bend of “Stuck Like Glue” to the martial, stadium-pop stomp of “Find the Beat Again,” the album sees Sugarland mapping the territory just outside of Nashville’s city limits — musically speaking.

To hear Bush tell it, this new direction began when the group was commissioned to pen a tune for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“We thought to ourselves, ‘Let’s write and record something that would psyche us up if we were a snowboarder or a skier about to go on,” Bush says. “So we did, and that became kind of the launching point for the rest of the record. There was so much freedom in trying to just be in the moment. ‘Hey, I’m kind of into this MGMT song right now and I like the way the keyboards work in it, why can’t we use that kind of influence?’ We really didn’t know what was going to happen. It wasn’t a conscious choice of, ‘Hey, I think it’s time we stretch.’ ”

But the broad, uninhibited feel of “Incredible Machine” has been polarizing, as the album has received mixed reviews with some questioning whether it even qualifies as a country record to begin with, which is fair.

Of late, though, the band has had much bigger concerns to deal with: the recent death of five fans after a stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair shortly before Sugarland was set to perform (this interview was conducted prior to the events of that evening).

Certainly, that tragedy will cast a pall over the rest of the band’s current tour.

But, the group is carrying on through their current spate of scheduled shows, serving as one of Nashville’s most prominent square pegs and leading crossover acts.

Basically, they’ve managed to fit in by not fitting in.

“At first, I think we were questioning ourselves, ‘Are we doing something wrong?’ ” Bush says of Sugarland’s tendency to resonate with noncountry music fans as much as those who are partisans of the genre. “Then I think we started to embrace it, and a beautiful thing was that the industry has gotten behind us and said, ‘You know what? You can be the doorman. And we’re OK with that.’ Look, we’ll be the gateway drug for country music.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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