"I feel like the luckiest guy on Earth to be able to keep playing music," enthuses Kristian Bush, looking back on his recording career of more than 25 years. "That it's gone on as long as it has, it's one of the best gifts the world has ever given to me."
Bush has lived three very distinct musical chapters, and when coming up with his Rolling Stone Country Sessions set list he decided to represent all of them. Armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, he played "Insomniac," a 1994 hit by his folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim; "Sugarland," the 2006 namesake song of his wildly popular country duo fronted by singer Jennifer Nettles; and "Southern Gravity," the title track of his critically-acclaimed 2015 solo album. They're three very different songs — at least when listening to the recorded studio versions. But when performed live by Bush, who penned all three, you realize the driving creative force is actually the same.
Bush may be best known as the lead guitarist and mandolinist for Sugarland – the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling country group whose long list of hits include "Baby Girl," "Stay" and "Settlin'" – but he went into that band with a well established following, as a lead singer. The Tennessee native started making his own records at age 13 and had pretty decent success playing clubs while studying creative writing at Emory University. He formed Billy Pilgrim with two other friends in the early Nineties and signed a record deal with Atlantic in 1993.
"Billy Pilgrim music is very emotional. It's one part the craft we learned from people like the Indigo Girls and R.E.M., and one part the Tom Waits craft, where you're trying to create a moment," says Bush. "Fans of Billy Pilgrim who followed me to Sugarland were like, 'Um, why are you not singing?' And I'd say, 'But you need to hear this singer [Nettles]! She's awesome!' But if you were a fan of the songs I wrote, the melodies I'd make, they transferred to Sugarland."
Formed in Atlanta, Sugarland got its name from a song Bush wrote after auditioning lead singers for the group. He'd met a woman from Sugar Land, Texas, and simply loved her hometown's name.
"The beginning of Sugarland was the fallout from tragedy."
"It just sounded happy," he recalls. "I was coming from a place that wasn't so happy at the time. The beginning of Sugarland was the fallout from some tragedy in my life: My mom had died, my studio burned and I lost all my gear. Then they flew the planes into those buildings [on September 11th] and it didn't feel right to be making music unless you were trying to make music to make things better."
Mission accomplished. Sugarland's debut album sold more than three million copies. Their subsequent four studio albums and one live album were also hugely successful with fans and critics alike. Among their many accolades are a Grammy for "Stay" and five years in a row of being crowned the CMA's Duo of the Year.
"The pinch-me moments just kept coming," says Bush, shaking his head as if he still can't believe some of them. "I get intimidated by famous people. When I'm around them and they look at me like I belong, I'm like, 'Are you nuts? You're freakin' famous!' Whether it's Elmo or a Beatle or Vince Gill, it's humbling to be in a room with these folks. I know that sounds cliché, but I function on believing. . . I've believed in these other people for so long. You see somebody like Dolly Parton, the one lady who 'made it' out of my hometown – and I believed I could do it, because she did."
While Bush insists neither Sugarland nor Billy Pilgrim have broken up, he's now knee-deep in a solo career. He hesitates to call it a "reinvention," as the new music really has two main influences: Billy Pilgrim and Sugarland. It may be hard to hear it, given the lyrics he wrote at the turn of the century were all sung by Nettles, a powerhouse female vocalist, but the melodies and the lyrical themes are similar.
"In my 40s, I feel dangerous!"
"Sugarland was a long story about a woman and empowerment, while Billy Pilgrim was a discovery of, how do you become emotional on stage? So I got to squish both of those things into my solo space," explains the singer-songwriter. "How do you find emotion you want – whether that's joy or sadness – and then how do you craft it in such a way that it also makes your hips move? That's me!"
Southern Gravity is indeed a dancefloor-ready, mood-boosting record, with the majority of its tracks uptempo and uplifting. But crafting songs for the album's follow-up, Bush feels himself branching out more. . . and realizing perhaps that "reinvention" isn't such a taboo word after all.
"Now I'm understanding a whole lot more about myself, about what I want to say," he reports. "It's different in your 20s, when you're afraid of losing your record deal. . . or in your 30s, when you've sold so many albums and now you've got to deliver. Now, in my 40s, I feel dangerous! I can take a risk but I'm going to take a calculated risk that really communicates to the most people in a field in the middle of some place like Stagecoach [Music Festival] . . or across a radio dial to you while you're driving. I really want to make you dance. It turns out, that's what matters to me!"