Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles Celebrates Her Birthday at Tour Opener

Ashton Shepherd Opens Concert in Asheville, N.C.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — “This is about the best birthday present you could ever get!” declared Jennifer Nettles to a packed house at the Asheville Civic Center on Saturday night (Sept. 13). The lead singer of Sugarland turned 34 over the weekend — which just happened to coincide with the first night of their new Love on the Inside tour.

Usually there’s a frenzy when the headliner finally steps out on stage, but the band decided on a really quiet buildup for their first song. Dressed in black and white, the supporting musicians walked toward the front of the stage and grabbed a fold-up umbrella from a trunk. Within a few minutes, a huddle of illuminated umbrellas were gathered in the corner, while Nettles and Kristian Bush gradually walked to the front of the stage. It sort of reminded me of an old black-and-white French movie. With the exception of a red spotlight, there was barely any stage lighting, and when the steady pulse of the song eventually climbed to fever pitch, the crowd went nuts.

Of course, the duo made up for lost time with a bounty of up-tempo hits, like “Settlin’,” “We Run” and “Baby Girl.” The latter song was enhanced by cute baby photos in the backdrop, while Nettles and Bush ran back and forth across the stage and made outrageous faces. If only exercise videos could go platinum, too.

The band played nearly every song on their new album, Love on the Inside, from the fun ones (like “It Happens” and “Steve Earle”) to the more serious (such as “Joey” and “Genevieve”). After so much activity, Nettles stood still to sing “Already Gone,” the band’s new single. The lyrics are so vivid and descriptive that neither performer needed to scramble across the stage to underscore the emotions in the song. Or maybe they were just catching their breath. Either way, the sound crew deserves credit for making the best of a basketball arena.

Plus, they’ve figured out something even more exciting than a T-shirt gun to get the crowd riled up. I don’t want to give away the secret, but I have never seen an audience come alive in the middle of a set like that before. People in the floor seats were on their feet for essentially the whole show, and I only spotted a few empty seats scattered around the venue. If nothing else, that confirms their recent CMA nomination for entertainer of the year is well-deserved.

Now that Sugarland has been around for a few years, they are capable of winding up the show with a bunch of hit songs. For the encore, they pulled out a handful of songs that must remind them of paying dues in the Georgia music scene, where both Nettles and Bush came up in separate bands. So even though the final selections aren’t Sugarland songs, the tunes are familiar enough that the audience can sing along anyway.

Ashton Shepherd did a remarkable job during her 40-minute set — significantly longer than usual because Kellie Pickler, the other opening act on the tour, wasn’t on this particular date. With a big, twangy voice, Shepherd is as country as they come, and she’s not afraid to let the fiddle player step out for some solos. Her original songs like “Sounds So Good” and “Takin’ Off This Pain” translate well to a live setting, and I bet there’s a “Stay” somewhere in her if she continues to develop her songwriting talent.

View photos of Sugarland and Ashton Shepherd at the concert.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.