Kristian Bush of Sugarland Cover Feature - KNOXVILLE MAGAZINE
Sugarland’s Kristian Bush
Knoxville’s Native On Fame, Fortune and the Importance Of Philanthropy
By Janet Testerman
Having already sweetened the pot with a Grammy, five No. 1 singles and the longest charting single of all time, it doesn’t look like Kristian Bush, the guitar pickin’, mandolin playin’, country singin’ front man of duo sensation Sugarland, is going to dissolve anytime soon.
“I’ve had to rewrite my to-do list of ‘things I’d one day like to do’ two and three times,” says the Sevier Country and Knoxville native. “I used to say the pinnacle would be winning a Grammy. Now that I’ve done that, I want to win another.” Kristian describes that Grammy moment when they opened the envelope and called Sugarland’s name. “Mind-blowing,” he says. “It’s hard to get your head around the fact that Paul McCartney may have voted for you.” With front woman and female phenom Jennifer Nettles, that experience was coupled with a coup at the 2007 Country Music Association Awards when the two won Vocal Duo of the Year, ending Brooks and Dunn’s nine-year winning streak. “It was humbling. They defined and redefined who country could reach.” Sugarland won back to back honors the following year.
The Webb School of Knoxville student, who was lead singer and bass guitarist with friends and band mates Matthew Turner, Jeff Roberts and Archer Bishop in the local band Masada, had already recorded 7 or 8 albums by the time he migrated to Atlanta to attend Emory University. He formed the group Billy Pilgrim with Andrew Hyra, actress Meg Ryan’s brother, in the early 90s. The duo signed with the same record label that had just signed Hootie and the Blowfish, and while Billy Pilgrim was successful, Kristian admits, “We were not high art.”
At 30, Kristian saw country music stretching. “I had an affinity for country and wondered what it would be like to write a country song for radio.” When Sugarland materialized in 2003, “Baby Girl” was the second song he and Jennifer wrote together. “I thought we were dead in the water many times, but we spent 49 weeks moving up the chart and broke the record for longest charting country single of all time.”
The burning question Sugarland hears frequently these days is, “How’s it feel now that you’ve made it?” to which Kristian laughs and poses the question, “We’ve made it?” He humbly retracts with a surprising response. “Actually, the moment I felt we’d made it was when we got to walk in to the set of Sesame Street and sing with the Muppets,” explaining only five performers a year are extended an invitation to share the street corner with Big Bird, Snuffleupagus and crew. “You have to pinch yourself when you’re singing next to Oscar’s trashcan. It’s a beautiful thing, talking to a puppet. You can’t help yourself.”
But for rising stars, perception is often the reality, Kristian being no exception. Now that he has indeed “arrived,” the realization for Kristian is “some things are true and some are not true. There’s definitely a myth and mythos early on, even in the 80s when I came aware of music. There was a rich and deep myth then, but that’s what’s required to make it through the dream.” Kristian upholds the truth that no matter what, hard work pays off. He debunks the myth, however, that success for musicians happens through a series of happy accidents. “Sometimes things don’t line up, but if you’re smart, you’ll get opportunity,” he maintains, “and when you get that opportunity, you have to be smart, or you don’t succeed. You’d drop your spoon sitting at dinner with Kenny Chesney knowing how smart he is. These are kids from the gifted class.”
This kid from the gifted class of East Tennessee, who sat in Thompson Boling Arena and The Civic Coliseum far more times as a fan than as a performer, has hit his hometown stage twice in the past two years. “Sure, I have that 15-year-old moment being on stage wondering how many old girlfriends are sitting out there. Knoxville is where I learned hot to get my heart broken and learned about breaking a heart,” he laughs. “But there are lots of hopes and dreams you carry on your shoulders as you succeed. There are people who wished for me, people who put up with me, and I carry that responsibility into the same room of 18,000 people.”
Even though Atlanta is where Kristian has lived for over 20 years, he’s quick to call Knoxville and Sevier County home. After all, he is the great-grandson and grandson of Bush Beans’ founders. “I still claim it,” he says proudly, reminiscing about this time of year specifically. “There’s something that happens in that part of the country in the fall – the quiet, the leaves, a sort of distance.” He recalls when his wife, Jill, was pregnant with their first child, all he wanted to do was pack up and move back to the mountains. “It’s just where I felt like I need to be. There is so much deep tradition there,” Kristian says nostalgically. “The value system is different. It’s more about how you do it than what you do. That concept came from growing up in Knoxville.”
While reflecting, Kristian grasps to remember the title of Bill Landry’s The Heartland Series. “That show stitches together the right of being from there. The music or art or feel of that place, there’s a cultural identity in East Tennessee,” an identity that definitely came with living in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains – identity that almost mandates bluegrass be in your blood and music of a dulcimer be cultivated long before that of a bass guitar.
As a young boy classically trained on the violin, Kristian experienced a defining moment that resonates to this day during every concert – the moment when he was carrying his violin to school and the mocking had pushed him to the brink. He turned, swinging his violin case, and knocked his tormenter to the ground. Dissolved to tears, knowing he had never hurt anyone and stunned his anger, Kristian remembers, “I ran home and begged my mom to let me stop playing the violin to school and start learning the guitar.” But she wouldn’t let him quit until he played in the Knoxville Youth Symphony – a promise he followed through on, earning the right to lay down the violin for good and pick up the guitar. He was 12, and today that’s the reason during every concert he looks for an 11-to 13-year old in the audience to give a signed guitar to. “Someone once asked me if I knew whether those kids ever learned how to play the guitar,” Kristian says. “I had no idea. I didn’t know their names, who they were or anything about them.” He soon learned, however, many of those kids whose spirits and confidence he lifted up in 15 significant seconds were posting online to say they were learning to play the guitar. “That’s the real effect of giving, especially those (outcomes) you can’t see,” he says thoughtfully, “because you don’t need it to complete the sensory cycle. For me it’s a hero’s job, and I accept it.”
Kristian’s charitable heart continues to pulse. He’s a huge advocate of The Liver Foundation after losing his mother to Hepatitis C. “That was a powerful experience,” he notes. He also supports the Shalom Foundation, an organization providing food and aid to underprivileged children in Guatemala. And with Sugarland, Kristian and Jennifer have sewn charitable oats launching Common Thread in 2008 as a cross-genre concert with artists like Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls and singer-songwriter Amos Lee. “We decided to institutionalize part of the year and invite people for an interesting listening experience, donating the entire ticket price and merchandise sales to charities selected by each performer,” he describes. “It’s empowering to use your talent to raise money.”
Kristian admits the addictiveness of giving is enhanced with understanding the interpersonal connection. “Giving is a human right. Everyone can equally give. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, it creates the same feeling every time,” Kristian says. “No matter how easy or difficult it is to get up and go to work every day, it’s so easy to buy coffee for the guy behind you in line. Once you encourage others or give them the opportunity to give, it becomes an instinct” – and a lesson he’s working every day to teach his kids, Tucker and Camille. He confesses, however, while he’s improved his giving, he’s still working to improve his talent of receiving because, as he says, “you can only truly give if you learn how to receive.”
Kristian feels people who typically go to concerts to forget and escape life go see Sugarland to remember. “It’s not always warm and fuzzy,” he says. “It might be about being broken, brokenness, hope and love, but it’s always music celebrating a message. There’s a shift happening and Sugarland is part of that shift. We’re moving from a culture of acquisition to a culture of giving.”
And with the season of giving upon us, it’s only fitting Sugarland has released their first-ever Christmas album, Gold and Green. Kristian talks about one of his favorite songs off the album saying, “‘Maybe Baby’ ‘might’ take place in Knoxville, and of course the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” The release is being marketed with a promotion on Twitter at sugarland.culturejam.com through the holidays. The rules: You have to give in order to get.
With the dawn of 2010 and new tour dates already being set, Kristian will hit mile marker 4.0 in March. And with the dawn of a new decade will likely come a new rewrite of his to-do list: ‘things I’d one day like to do’ – with the exception of one thing that’s topped his list since he was 13-years-old. “I want to write a James Bond theme song. That would be fantastic,” he laughs, yet he could not be more serious. “I think I was brainwashed by TBS when I was young. It’s like Saturday Night Live”; not everybody gets to do it, but I’ve been telling everyone I know just so maybe one day I’ll be considered.” While there might be “something more,” most would agree, that would be a pretty sweet deal.