It took the actions of a seven-year-old to help Kristian Bush find peace — literally — after the deadly Indiana State Fair stage collapse of 2011.
Seven people were killed and nearly 100 injured at almost the exact minute the Sugarland guitarist and lead singer Jennifer Nettles were meant to start their set. The country duo were told at the last second to hold off and stay in an area beneath the stage, as a brutal storm was heading in — a storm whose 60 to 70 mph winds caused the stage roofing, rigging and lighting structure to crash down on fans waiting front-and-center to see the superstar twosome.
About five months later, a devastated Bush was home with his daughter, Camille, when a box of his broken mandolins was finally shipped to him. Most were irreplaceable, custom-made instruments that were now in little pieces.
"We laid it all on the floor, and I went downstairs to change the laundry," Bush recalls. "I came back upstairs and she had arranged all of the pieces of the mandolins into a big peace sign on the floor of the living room. She was seven years old! I couldn't do anything but just sit there and weep. In the face of a child, she was just, 'It's going to be OK, Dad.'"
Bush is finally opening up about the concert tragedy and the deafening silence that followed. He wasn't allowed to speak about the stage collapse until just a few months ago, when a settlement was reached with victims and their families. He talked about it publicly for the first time with Rolling Stone, in a candid conversation about the most trying year of his life. The interview also marks the first time he has discussed his divorce from his wife of 12 years, Jill, which happened less than three months after the Indianapolis disaster. The couple vowed to keep their split under wraps, for the sake of Camille and her older brother, Tucker.
What prompted the Tennessee native to now make his private pain public was the music that came out of the fog. His first solo album, Southern Gravity, out April 7th, was partly borne of the mandated silence. While Bush couldn't talk about his major life and career hurdles, he could write about it. But surprisingly, the new album isn't likely to induce a single tear. In fact, it's one of the most jubilant country LPs, from start to finish, in years.
"One of the reasons why I thought it was important to talk about this story for the first time, was so that people understand what this album is," Bush reasons. "It's one thing to listen to it and hear it as sunshine. It's another thing to listen to it and hear it as sunshine into a cave. It's been dark in there for a long time."
Bush tells Rolling Stone about the lively new music, his lingering frustrations from the stage collapse and his eternal optimism about the future of Sugarland.
What do you remember about the night of August 13th, 2011?
It was just like any other show. We had a meet-and-greet, we said a prayer and they put us on a hold for a minute. And then, from where I was, everything exploded. Everything above us crashed, so the roof shook and the door exploded. I thought maybe a bomb had gone off. I was scared. We were grabbing onto each other, just making sure people we knew were OK. Then they walked us out, evacuated us really quickly.
How soon was it before you knew the breadth of what happened?
I saw it when I walked out, what the ending was, but I didn't know what had happened. I had to see it on television. I just couldn't believe that's what happened. It's just terrible.
Everyone immediately started playing the blame game. In your opinion, was this human error or the wrath of Mother Nature?
That's not my place to say; it was just confusing. When something like that happens, everyone wants there to be a reason. What happened didn't make sense, how people were talking about it didn't make sense, how much you couldn't talk about it didn't make sense. It felt very legal really quickly. We were famous for a terrible thing, and we couldn't talk about it.
What exactly were you not allowed to talk about?
Pretty much everything. I wasn't able to contact anyone who got hurt. There was nobody to call, nobody to talk to. Legally, no one knew what to do. They said, "Look, you've got to be quiet." So that's what I did. This literally might be the first time I've talked to a person I'm not related to about it.
How badly did you want to reach out to the families of the seven people killed?
Oh, my God. [Sighs] Those are fans. Not only fans, they were out in front! We had gone to great lengths to create [a space for] fans who are the best fans to be in the front. It was supposed to be everything you want from your favorite band, and it was. And you can't call those people? That was weird.
The media covered this tragedy pretty much every day for weeks. Where did you watch the news reports, and did you do so with a support system?
I didn't watch or read much about it, but I did take a lot of time with my kids. I remember taking out Tucker's Legos and trying to explain it to him. His friends at school were going to say something to him, and I wanted him to understand what happened.
That was the first place I went was home. I wanted them to know I was all right. I'm not necessarily in a vocation where I'm at risk; it's not like I'm a police officer. I'm a musician, so when I leave home, my family expects me to come back.
What did this tragedy do to the dynamics within your band and crew?
Whatever tragedy does to a family — it pushes them together. And in a ways, it took a snapshot in time. Everybody remembers it, though we all remember it differently. I'd lay down for any of them, and they would do the same.
The first thing we did was get information from the Pearl Jam folks. They reached out really quickly. [Nine fans were killed in the mosh pits at a 2000 Pearl Jam show in Denmark.] They said, "Look, you need to get a grief counselor out on the road as fast as possible." And Gail [Gellman, Sugarland's manager] found one and brought them out the next week. So we watched everybody deal with it, and no one was the same after that.
Less than three months after the tragedy, your divorce was finalized. But even today, more than three years later, if you do an Internet search for "Kristian Bush divorce," practically nothing pops up. How did you keep it out of the press?
There wasn't a lot of anger involved, so that gave us perspective. One of the things we decided to do was protect the kids and doing that meant asking the court to seal it. They did, and I'm forever grateful — to both Jill, for a good divorce, and to the court for being a partner in that. But at the end of the day, the only judgment was not how Jill or I felt about it, but how the kids felt. You do things for your kids you won't do for yourself.
I think most people will hold onto relationships that aren't working well and won't try to change — just survive them. My parents stayed together until I was out of college and then they were like, "Hey, we're getting a divorce." I didn't have any frame of reference, so I had to just make it up. It's a very sad thing to do, to divorce. When I say a "good divorce," I mean one done with respect. It's a terrible, sad place. And even when you think you've got a handle, the moment that the court says you're done, then it gets real. And then again, the silence of it kept it personal. But it also keeps you very alone.
Why talk about the divorce now, after you'd succeeded in keeping it secret for so long?
All of this is in context of trying to understand the record that's coming out now. I've got to tell you the story so you can understand the record. There was a whole lot of not talking going on, during this part of my life. But there's playing music — that I could do. It felt like I didn't have to be as quiet as I was feeling. I couldn't tell people what I was going through, but I could sing it to them.
How are your kids doing?
The kids have dealt with it pretty well. They navigate us well. I try to frame it in a different way. I say, "Look, guys. This is the choice we've made as a family. It's just a different kind of family now — they come in all shapes and sizes. But at the end of the day, think about it like this: you get to have two adventures instead of just one." And they're those kinds of kids.
You were the only parent in Sugarland until the year after the stage collapse, when Jennifer welcomed her son. Her solo album, That Girl, shortly followed, but you actually released some music out in Europe before that. So, officially, whose idea was it to put Sugarland on hiatus and make solo records?
She had come to me about it first. She said, "Hey, I'm pregnant. We're going to need to adjust the show, but we're going to work all the way up until. And I'd like to do a solo record." I was really excited for her to be a mom, and people were going to get a chance to hear her the way I heard her before she was in the band. She had a career ahead of [Sugarland].
So I knew pretty quickly I was going to have some time. I wasn't even thinking about a solo record. But pretty quickly, a strange thing started to happen: I started to write more than I've ever written. And I got included in a lot of the CMA Songwriters [Series] stuff, while Jennifer was on a TV show [ABC's Duets], so there was a lot of us not appearing together. [The song] "Love or Money" came out as a lark; it was a result of doing the C2C international country festival. The promoter asked me if I would open the show on the first day, and I didn't even really have a band! "Love or Money" came as a part of that conversation, because I'd just written it. So I asked the promoter, "If I wanted to send a thank you note to every fan in that room, do you have their email addresses?" He said yes, so I sent them all "Love or Money." And that turned into a release, because the record company said, "We have to release it if you're just going to give it away!" So, in a strange way, my first song was an import.
What's your relationship like with Jennifer now?
We don't communicate as much as we used to, because of just life and babies . . . I remember asking her, "Do you want help [on your album]?" And she was like, 'No, we can't do that because then we'd make a Sugarland record." Oh yeah, you're right! So, the nature of it right now is me so proud that she's chasing a dream. This thing on Broadway [Nettles is starring as Roxie Hart in Chicago], she's been chasing for a long time. I've listened to a lot of "no"s happen on the other side of phone calls next to your friend in a car. It's hard to hear someone go through that kind of disappointment. So to watch her triumphantly do it, it's a big deal.
What do you see in Sugarland's future?
I have very high hopes. Sugarland was a band we started to try to make things better. It was in the aftermath of 9-11, it was in the aftermath of my mother dying. . . there was a lot of weird stuff that had gone on that made you want to start something good. We're not done doing that. Creatively, I'd be curious to see now what we're going to make when we hang out together again, because we have so much more life experience.
It's interesting that you mention your own life experience the past few years, in the wake of the Indiana tragedy and your divorce, led to the songs on Southern Gravity — because the album is incredibly happy! The first track, "Make Another Memory" is an uptempo, playful love song. What was the thought behind starting the record off with it?
"Make Another Memory" comes right out of the box and goes right for the jugular. It's like, "Hello! It's time to play music." It reminds me what I used to feel like when I'd listen to a new Replacements record — it would come out and just kick me in the face. I thought ["Make Another Memory"] was the perfect song to do that. Everyone doesn't know what to expect. They're going to put the CD in, hit play and this is what's going to come out. It lets you know that I'm interested in being on the radio; it lets you know that I can sing and it lets you know that I'm a huge Springsteen fan.
"Trailer Hitch" was the first single and thus the official introduction, at least stateside, to you as a solo singer. Since you didn't sing much in Sugarland, were a lot of people surprised by your voice?
I was playing Conan, and somebody walks by who I just casually know and he's like, "Hey, man, what are you doing here?" I was like, "I'm here playing." And then there was that awkward space where he was like, "Wait a minute? Is there a new Sugarland record I don't know about?" And I said, "Yeah, I'm here because I have a song on the radio called 'Trailer Hitch.'" And he was like, "Shut it! I love that song!" This was somebody I knew! So, watching people connect me to that song is interesting. Nobody really knows what I sound like when I sing.
What's the story behind the title track, "Southern Gravity"?
I was trying to write a song about what it feels like to be in the south today. It's different than the stereotype. It has a little mystery about it. We were just talking: "Why don't people know what pimento cheese is? Why are the women so beautiful here? Why is the barbecue so good?" And suddenly, the music came out. . . all those images. And the reason I made it the album title is that it was the song I worked the hardest on to make it sound right.
"Giving It Up" is a cheerful song but may very well be the one most reflective of the tragedies of the past. What does it say about your mindset?
"Baby Girl" started as a wish that began Sugarland's career. Nobody knew us, and the whole idea was, "Can you make a song into a wish?" "Giving It Up" is definitely a wish. It's what you hope to have happen. It's the song that turns the key, because in a lot of ways I'm really just testifying. You can look at the album through the years that led up to it, and you'll see these songs in a different way. The brightness and the light and the joy of this album all of a sudden have a whole lot more weight when you put it into context of, it was not joyous, it was not light, it was heavy. So finding these songs and writing them, recording them, it was like post-it notes that you've been leaving on your mirror to just get through the heavy and the silence and the crap of starting again.
Were there any sad songs that you shelved for this album?
A lot. The amount of sad it took to get to the happy was gigantic. But I don't want to make a sad record. All I could really do is write music, even if I couldn't talk about what's going on in my life. In collecting these [songs], I realize you kind of leave them for yourself along the way. Putting together a record of joy has been really hard, but I’m so proud of it. And if it's helping me, maybe it'll help someone else.