Sugarland Sweeten the Dial

Energetic Atlanta-Based Trio Release Debut Album

After a night of drinking martinis, Kristen Hall asked Jennifer Nettles to sing in her new country band, Sugarland, which she formed with Kristian Bush and some of their buddies. Nettles said she’d do it, but it was at Starbucks that the deal was sealed.

“I told Kristian that Jennifer said, “Sure,” but we’re gonna have to test her,” Hall remembers, laughing at the memory. Hall and Bush devised a plan to invite her for coffee at 9:30 a.m., a time few musicians ever see. And if Nettles was willing to wake up for the meeting, then they’d know she meant it.

“It’s so funny that you say that it was a big test,” Nettles says, cracking up as Hall recounts the story. “I just thought, ’God, they are crazy.’ And then I thought about Kristian, and maybe he just has weird hours because he’s been used to strange hours. At the time, he was working another job so maybe they’re like morning people or something? So I was like, ’Sure, I’ll come.’ So I drag my butt out of bed and roll down to Starbucks and had a coffee and a conversation and …”

“We made a band that day,” Bush says. Taking the name from a friend’s Texas hometown, the Atlanta-based trio release their energetic debut, Twice the Speed of Life, on Tuesday (Oct. 26).

The album was written almost entirely among the three members, who had already spent several years pursuing individual music careers in their hometown and beyond. Hall toured as a guitar tech and later as an opening act for the Indigo Girls and released two singer-songwriter albums on High Street Records. Bush was one-half of the ’90s folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim, referred to by some as the Indigo Boys. Hall had returned from living in Los Angeles at about the time Billy Pilgrim dissolved. Bush and Hall started to write together, talked about how much they both loved Steve Earle, and Hall confessed that she’d love to have a country band.

Bush wasn’t instantly sold, he says now, because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to form another band so soon. But he showed up at rehearsal with his mandolin anyway. (He now considers himself such a fan that he maintains the band’s Web site.) Meanwhile, Hall asked two friends about any singers who might be the next superstar out of Atlanta, and they both instantly mentioned Nettles.

“So I had to seek and acquire,” Hall says.

Nettles came up singing in small clubs in Atlanta, then formed the band Soul Miner’s Daughter before leading the Jennifer Nettles Band. The outfit was touring heavily and building a regional audience but had nearly run its course.

“I’d had the same band for eight years, and a couple those guys were moving on and doing other things,” Nettles says. “That was a pretty emotional point for me, and so I was really open to new things and thinking, ’What is the universe about to bring me here?'”

She would soon find out. Drawing on their individual fan bases, Sugarland immediately began selling out shows in Atlanta, drawing an enthusiastic response from their boisterous personalities and memorable (and original) music. In July 2003, they promptly signed a major label deal after one Nashville showcase. Their upbeat debut single “Baby Girl,” about an ambitious young woman who survives on the love of her parents until her Nashville dreams come true, is now climbing the chart, and the video is airing on CMT.

“We lived the song that day,” Bush says, recalling the showcase. “We played the show crossing our fingers but didn’t really know who was going to be there but thought there were going to be some record labels. And literally after we walked off the stage … we stood there with out eyes really big like deer, and these record labels came through and said, ’We want to make a record with you.’ ’No, no, no, we want to make a record with you.’ ’No, no, no.’ … It was really a fairy tale for a musician. I mean it’s just everything you dream about.”

In addition to an album release party in Atlanta on Tuesday, they’ll also play an acoustic set at a locally-famous ice cream parlor on the following Saturday, celebrating the shop’s new flavor, Sugarland Swirl. Earlier this year, they landed the sweet gigs of opening select concerts for Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Wynonna. In the meantime, they have performed at countless industry functions, country radio stations and corporate boardrooms where it gets crowded when a dozen people show up.

“We’ve done some really silly things to prepare for the things that are happening to us now,” Hall says. “We didn’t even know they were preparation. For instance, when the band first started, it just so happened, any time we’d be at a party, somebody would say, ’Play!’ In the past, I’d be like ’No, man,’ but now I’d go ’OK, Jen, let’s do it.’ So for two or three pool parties, we just stood around a group of people and played. Well, it really pays off now, because we find ourselves in this position an awful lot where we’re standing around four or five people playing to the bleachers, you know what I mean? So that’s been a blessing.”

For a band that started at a coffee shop, all three members of Sugarland still get a buzz thinking about the present, as well as the road ahead — “2,000 miles and one left turn,” to quote a line from “Baby Girl.”

Bush says, “What we thought was a pipe dream — or at least way, way out there in the distance — you could barely see it on the horizon, now is the next exit. We may just drive on by and keep going, and see how far we can make this go.”