With unframed posters of U2 and Paul Simon's Graceland on the wall, old copies of Rolling Stone on a side table and a guitar perched in the corner, Kristian Bush's office on the second floor of his new Nashville record label, Broken Bow Records, is evocative of one belonging to a high-school student circa 1988. Despite the fact that he's been releasing music for decades – with the duo Billy Pilgrim, as one half of Sugarland and as a solo artist – Bush still talks like a teenager queuing up cassettes on his Sony boom box. Maybe that's just his nature, or maybe it's the fact that the follow-up to his debut LP, 2015's Southern Gravity, will be the third second album of his career. But going around the dial this many times hasn't worn out Bush, who just released the new single "Sing Along." Instead, it's invigorated him.
"This will be my third sophomore album. And I understand the weight of that. I'm familiar with the expectations you have of yourself. I remember how exiting it was when someone finally gave you the keys to the car," Bush tells Rolling Stone Country, seated in jeans and a sleek black coat that he picked up on a recent trip to New York. He flew in from Atlanta this morning – Bush never made a permanent move to Nashville – and will catch a plane back in a few hours to attend previews for Troubadour, his new musical about 1950s country music starring Radney Foster.
On Southern Gravity, Bush set the blueprint for his solo career through a set of sunshine-laced, always optimistic pop-country tracks somewhere between Jack Johnson, James Taylor and the exuberance of Sugarland's "Stuck Like Glue." Though it was Jennifer Nettles on lead for the duo's records, songs like "Trailer Hitch" showed how many of those infectious rhythmic patterns and uplifting hooks lead back to Bush. New single "Sing Along," wasn't supposed to be released last month, but when country DJ Bobby Bones played a leaked version, the label let it hit the airwaves early. The song is about Bush's divorce, but it's still just as positive and, yes, begs you to sing along.
"I'm learning that's a bit of a hallmark for me," says Bush. "The song must exist itself as the thing it's talking about. It's asking you to sing along, but it's also wishing that this song shows up inside you and bounces around in your head."
While Bush has yet to announce a date for the album, one only needs to look to the stage of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre for new songs, where the musical he scored (without a single co-writer) is running through February 12th. Bush hopes Troubadour will continue on elsewhere like Elton John's Aida, which was staged at the Alliance before heading to Broadway. Starring Foster and written by Janece Shaffer, it tells the story of a country music legend, Billy Mason, and his son, Joe, who needs to step into the spotlight in the wake of his father's retirement. Post-Sugarland, it's a storyline that Bush can relate to. "I can tell you exactly where that character is coming from, where their anxieties are coming from," he says.
Rolling Stone Country sat down with Bush, who also produced Lindsay Ell's forthcoming debut LP, to talk "Sing Along," staying positive in a troubling world and musicians that come from outer space.
Southern Gravity finally let fans hear the "you" behind Sugarland. Now that your voice is out there, do you feel more comfortable in taking your music in whatever direction you please?
Do I think I have latitude to stretch out? No. I don't think a sophomore album is an opportunity to stretch in the commercial space. I have an expectation of myself to solidify. This is where, if you get the unbelievable chance to get on the radio again, you speak your truth. And if you did your first record right and told the truth, your second record will be an extension of that.
You've always been open about balancing artistry with what works on the radio, and how one needn't sacrifice one for the other.
I love making music, but I also love making music that's on the radio. In some circles, that is considered less artistic. And I've always tried to resist those people that say the two can't exist at the same time. Why can't Paul Simon's "Graceland" be on the radio? It makes me feel good as music and art and also makes me feel good to sing along to it. That was always a thing that I loved the most about this particular job, otherwise I wouldn't be in commercial music.
There is such a splintering these days between radio artists, particularly in country radio, and indie artists who tend to view embracing mainstream airplay as a negative thing. But back in the early days of U2, it wasn't always so – radio was just how you touched your fans. How did that fissure form?
When I got my record deal at Atlantic, at the time "indie" wasn't a style of music, it was a kind of label. And I think eventually the bands that ended up on those labels began to be branded as "indie bands," and then it became a genre. Really it was, "We don't see a commercial song in your pile, we love your band, but there is not one song here we can use for a mass market." Instead of sending them back, [it should have been], "We're not asking you to be Michael Jackson, we're just asking you to be U2." Which songs are connecting with people? Music is supposed to make you less lonely – that's the whole idea. That's why I think U2 mattered – not because they sold out, they never sold out. But, man, they found a U2 song that everyone can relate to, and we all stood behind it. That's the cool thing about Taylor Swift - there is no one like her now, but when she started, a lot of people were. Though there are not a lot of people like George Clinton – I need him to be from outer space. I needed David Bowie to have been from outer space. I need the Flaming Lips to be from outer space, but I need Bruce Springsteen to not be from outer space.
"It's the responsibly of artists to pull you along, give you a voice"
That joy is certainly something that has become your signature since Southern Gravity – not many people can write a song with the word "hearse" in it and end on a happy note. "Sing Along" carries on that tradition: it's about a breakup, but it's still optimistic.
It was very difficult to get to that first record, and to figure out which songs were the beginning of that story. ["Sing Along"] is all of me, there is nothing there that isn’t true. I made a mistake in a relationship. And relationships are delicate breakable things. But love is powerful glue. Even broken things still work, which is weird. And you grow up thinking you have to wait for the perfect love and when you see it, how will you know? The lesson I learned in this song is you only know once you break it. And the fear is that it's going to break. And you'll do anything to keep it from breaking.
"Sing Along" is also quite catchy due, in part, to its melody. You've always been a huge proponent of melody, even as it's lost a starring role in country music.
I believe that melody is such a lost part of music and country music. People are either scared of it, or not using all the colors that are available. I love melodies getting stuck in my ear. I love the way Appalachian music works. Whenever I hear the hum of machinery like a vacuum cleaner and it's just a constant tone, I can go and find the melodies that go against that, and make the sounds that go out of that single note, because I was raised in the world of Appalachian music. That's why I loved R.E.M: they're just singing things that happened in the mountains, but singing pop songs over them.
Has Troubadour, which is set in the 1950s, let you exercise your classic country muscle? "Sing Along" is radio-friendly, but these songs could be released as an album that would appeal to fans of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price.
That's part of the charm of it for me. It's a story of father and son, and it's the story of country music moving from one place to another. Which, I've maintained for years, it still does today. Your country music and your parents' country music might not be the same. So it's tackling all this stuff in this most beautiful, intricate way.
One person who is moving country forward is Lindsay Ell, whose debut record you just produced. What can we expect?
The room that we are sitting in, Lindsay came and sat in six months ago and I taught her what I know about making records. And one of the things I taught her was that albums can have rules. I said, go look up the rules the creator of [Looney Tunes'] Road Runner made. That the coyote will always be more humiliated than hurt, that he will always use Acme products only. You stay within the rules and the playground is yours. I sat with her and we made rules for the album. It started to focus her in such a way that she started to get excited, and an artist that's excited is the most powerful thing in the universe.
Artists also have a unique power to provide a voice in times of strife, so how do you navigate through this very tense political environment? Is there any sort of responsibility to provide some guidance to your listeners, independent of what side of the party system they fall?
I think music is there to help you speak where you can't. It's the responsibly of artists to pull you along, give you a voice. That's always been important to me, if you're singing along to a Sugarland song, what it's giving you permission to feel.
We're sitting in a time with a lot of fear, as a culture and as a nation. But you'll always be able to depend on me to hold you for the amount of time we are together, and show you that you matter, that life is supposed to be about joy. And that no matter how far you are away from that, we can find it. Culturally, we have moved so far in such a short amount of time. Musically, that momentum will keep going: momentum is powerful. In Sugarland, we got to play the Nobel Peace Prize concert. We played the year three women won, and one of the women was one who ushered in the Arab Spring. It was a very beautiful and humbling experience. So I asked, "What can I really do? Because I feel powerless." And they said, "You can be a good father to a daughter." It starts in that moment. It doesn't mean you have to go and march anywhere – just start by being good at that.