NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Sugarland’s upcoming CD is a leading candidate for country album of the year. Love on the Inside, which releases on July 22 and July 29 in its two versions, comes in two models: regular and deluxe edition. The latter, for a few dollars more, includes five extra songs, for a total of 17 cuts.
Sugarland have been a consistent personal favorite ever since I first saw them perform before they signed their Mercury recording deal. Back then, they had already written and were performing what would become big hits for them. And they were polished performers before signing with a Nashville label.
That’s what years of gigging in clubs and honky tonks will do for aspiring artists. It turns would-be singers into real-life performers. I’ve known more than one artist hopeful who signed with a Nashville label before ever performing in front of anyone other than family and friends. And in some cases, that has proved disastrous.
Growing up professionally on stage also hones songwriting chops, as performers learn about audiences’ likes and dislikes and preferences and yearnings. Just getting to know audience members personally, beyond the meet-and-greet level, educates aspiring artists. I don’t see how any writer or singer can pretend to make a living in country music without knowing the audience — as fully as possible. And by knowing, I don’t mean knowing audiences from radio callouts or focus groups. From knowing real people and what they like and don’t like.
Sugarland have successfully done it, and many other country groups and artists have as well.
And, by and large, musically they have not disappointed. They’ve cut only one song that sends me reeling from the room in pain. And that is “All I Want to Do.” Some people I’ve talked to love it. Others dislike it heartily. It’s a very polarizing song. Naturally, it will probably turn into their biggest radio hit ever. It’s also the first cut on Love on the Inside, but once you get past it, you emerge into a wonderful place– where Sugarland is being mostly acoustic.
Such cuts as the big ballad “Love,” the Appalachian-flavored “We Run,” the dirge-like “Genevieve” and the waltz “Already Gone” rely heavily on acoustic guitars, with a subtle organ thread now and then working underneath, along with occasional mandolin flairs.
Their co-writers on the album include some familiar names to Sugarland followers: Bobby Pinson, who was responsible for “Want To,” and Tim Owens, who co-wrote “Settlin'” with Sugarland. There’s also Kenny Chesney’s guitarist Clayton Mitchell and the old pro of Nashville songwriters, Bill Anderson.
The quasi-gothic tale which Sugarland co-wrote with Anderson, “Joey” is a bit of a departure for both. Nothing specific is spelled out in the lyrics, but in this increasingly foreboding tale, you know that something horrible has happened to Joey, who is now apparently dead, and the narrator keeps asking herself all the “what if” questions? “What if I took the keys? What if we never fell in love?” The mournful chorus is simply “Joey I’m so sorry/Oh can you hear me/Joey I’m so sorry.” And she sadly asks, “Did you reach for me?”
What if there were no more need for sad songs? Then there’d be no more country music. That’s the story of the very arresting “Very Last Country Song,” written with Owens.
And then there’s “Take Me as I Am.” Where else but in country music would you find a big song about self-worth and esteem narrated by a motel maid? And, if you’re a male listener and Jennifer Nettles’ sultry delivery of “What I’d Give” doesn’t get your pulse to racing and your blood pumping, then you’re not breathing. And there’s a witty ode to the living, breathing subject of the song “Steve Earle.”
The best of Sugarland’s body of work is very rewarding, in just such ways. Unpredictable, melodic and usually well worth your while. Their songwriting remains at a high-quality, Jennifer Nettles is in fine voice here and Kristian Bush is singing more and his playing is all over the record. They give what is usually called country pop a good name.