"Who remembers my old band?" Kristian Bush asked his audience last weekend, during a performance at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Seaside, Florida.
He wasn't talking about Sugarland, the best-selling country duo that's been on temporary hold ever since Bush and Jennifer Nettles launched solo careers. Instead, he was referencing Billy Pilgrim. Formed more than two decades ago, Billy Pilgrim gave Bush his first brush with mainstream success, thanks to a radio-ready sound whose hooks and two-part harmonies laid much of the groundwork for Sugarland's own career. There was no lead singer. Instead, Bush shared the role with Andrew Hyra, another Atlanta-based songwriter. Together, the two landed a record deal with Atlantic and released a handful of albums, their music occupying the middle ground between Triple A pop and the Jayhawks' harmony-heavy folk-rock.
"You're blood brothers when you go through the trenches of the music business together at that age," remembers Hyra. "It was the mid-Nineties and we were both very green. Kristian was fresh out of college! We traveled all over the world together, just with two acoustic guitars and two voices."
The band's heyday was short-lived. Atlantic dropped Billy Pilgrim from the label's roster in 1996, and by the early 2000s, Bush was already performing with another Atlanta-area singer, Jennifer Nettles. Billy Pilgrim never truly broke up; the guys just stopped working together. Without the band to connect them, the two fell out of touch, losing total communication for 15 years.
That all changed at this month's 30A Songwriters Festival. Hyra, now making his living as a carpenter in the north Atlanta suburbs, had landed a spot on the festival's lineup with his new band, Smokin' Novas. Bush was performing that weekend as well. The two didn't cross paths until the final night, when Hyra showed up at Bush's show. Looking to extend an olive branch to his old friend, Bush ended the gig by strumming his way through the opening chords of "I Won't Tell," a song from Billy Pilgrim's 1995 release, Bloom. Hyra responded by walking onstage and joining his bandmate, bringing Billy Pilgrim back together — albeit briefly — for the first time since 2001.
"I was playing the song," Bush tells Rolling Stone Country, "and people started clapping and standing up, and I was like, 'We're not even in the good part of the song yet!' Then I realized what was happening. Andrew was walking up. We sang the rest of the song together, and the harmonies sounded like they always did. After 15 years! It was beautiful and emotional. I turned to him afterwards and said, 'So. . .I started this country band.'"
In the video above, the two finish the latter half of "I Won't Tell" before moving into a clip of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City." Raw and unrehearsed, the performance still shines a light on a musical bond that remains intact after more than a decade's absence. When asked if the duo plans on teaming up again anytime soon, Bush sounds hopeful, noting that Hyra joined him in the studio earlier this week to sing harmonies on a demo.
"It might be cool to figure out if we could do a show together sometime," Bush says, with equal parts excitement and caution. "That's as far as you wanna take it at first. I just got the green light to do my second solo album, so I'm gonna put my head down and work on that for the time being. But hey, I've already got two jobs — so three can't hurt too much now."
"My music has become more of a casual thing," says Hyra. "I'm a builder now. I work 50 hours a week and want to spend time with my family. But the records we did, I'm real proud of. We have a real alchemy with our voices. It was real poetic to get onstage with him, to let our harmonies be the first contact we had in years. It was a perfect circle, really."