CMT Insider Interview: Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles Elaborates on Voice Problems

As She Explains It, "We Found Out I Was Human"

With more than two dozen tour dates still on the books in 2009, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles is committed to remain on the road through early October while remaining acutely aware that she needs to take care of her voice.

In July, Sugarland was forced to cancel several shows, including high-profile appearances with Kenny Chesney in San Francisco and Keith Urban in Los Angeles, after Nettles began to suffer the strain of singing constantly onstage and in the studio. The cancellations prompted a small group of fans to post negative comments about the duo on various Web sites, but even Chesney came to their defense to say that it was essential for Nettles to take care of her health.

After completing 10 days of voice rest ordered by her doctor, Sugarland returned to the road Thursday (July 30) in Bend, Ore. Ironically, that particular concert had been canceled twice — for reasons that were totally out of the duo’s control.

Sugarland gained more national exposure this week with Live on the Inside, an ABC-TV concert special that aired Monday (Aug. 3). An expanded version of the performance was released Tuesday (Aug. 4) as a CD/DVD package for sale exclusively at Wal-Mart.

Prior to the concert in Oregon, Nettles and musical partner Kristian Bush spoke to CMT Insider producer Terry Bumgarner about what’s going on in their lives and career.

CMT Insider: Let’s talk about the reasons for the cancellations. What happened?

Nettles: The story is basically this: We found out that I was human. And you don’t really know what that is, you don’t know what your limits are, until you get there. And every once in a while, you push things too hard. … We did work in the studio in between being out on the road. Normally, we’re out on the road and we have a few days of vocal rest, and we go back out again. That’s how it works. It’s much like an athlete. You don’t put your pitcher in every single day, every single game. He’s got to rest. I didn’t rest as much as I should, and I overused it.

And that’s basically what happened, and it does happen. … I care so much about my voice that I could tell when it was doing damage, and I wanted to stop because I’m not diggin’ on any sort of surgery. You know what I’m saying? … I’m not necessarily interested in taking it that far. I would rather rest and heal and then come back, rather than being out there on a limp leg, so that’s what I did.

So the doctor said, “You’ve got to rest.”

Nettles: The doctor said, “You did the smart thing to not sing.”

Was it a difficult decision when you realized you needed to cancel few shows?

Nettles: Oh, god, yes.

Bush: It was terrible.

Nettles: It was a very difficult decision. It’s crying and railing, not only because do I not want to disappoint people but also because I love what I do. I happen to actually like it. I like being out there, and I also happen to be extremely driven and extremely hardheaded, and I don’t like something outside of my control running the situation. And at that point, something else was running the situation that was more important than me, as far as my ego, and that being my voice. And so I made the best decision for that, and I’m playing the long game here, too. I’m not out for the short game. I want to do this for a very long time because I love it so. If I get down and I get on a limp leg, I’m going to protect that because I know the fans would rather have me around a long time than have me there for one show.

Did it scare you?

Nettles: Absolutely. It scares me. Anytime anything starts happening with my instrument, I start thinking, “OK, what is it going to be?” And I knew even for a couple of dates I was singing on something I shouldn’t be singing on, but I really wanted to try and see, like, “OK, really. How bad is it?” I had to feel it out, and it’s very scary because you think, “All right. I can go out there, and I can do tomorrow, but I may not do the rest of the year if I do tomorrow. And that is terrifying. And that is when you say, “Wait a minute. Let’s pull back. That doesn’t make any sense.”

And for Kristian, it’s got to be the same feeling, I guess.

Bush: Oh, absolutely. I mean, no one wants to work more than we do. No one even around us wants to work as much as we do. We apparently want to work so much that we shouldn’t be working so much. [That’s] the lesson. And you find your limits. You find your limits by going out and trying. We’re just like anybody else in any other job. You just can’t work 90 hour weeks. You can’t do it. We can’t sing seven days a week.

How difficult was it for you to watch your friend struggle with this injury?

Bush: You don’t want to see anybody in pain, no matter who you are. I’m the first one in line to say let’s cancel a show — because you want to protect your friends whenever they get in trouble. No matter what it is, especially when it’s your health.

Did it upset or surprise you that some people were complaining about the cancellations.

Nettles: People do not surprise me. People do not surprise me anymore — not only to their greatness and the heights that they can achieve and the love and the beauty that they are capable of … but also the complete idiocy and lack of respect and lack of decency. And it goes both ways so, no, it doesn’t surprise me. Does it disappoint me? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, it also says, “Well, we have something that people really want. And sometimes they want it more than … ”

Bush: You have to give.

Nettles: Than I have to give. And sometimes they want it more than actual human compassion and kindness. I think a lot of times it’s the nature of this job. When you see us on television, you don’t think that we’re real. There is a part of that that happens that [they] think you’re super human and you’re bigger and …

Bush: You must never smell. You must never get sick.

Nettles: All of these things. … And we’re people just like every one else. We get sick, we get hurt, we cry, we get upset, we disappoint ourselves, we disappoint other people. And that’s real. That’s the truth with a capital “T.”

It’s got to be nice that Kenny Chesney stepped in and said, “Hey, this happens.”

Nettles: He understands.

Bush: He does. There are very few people you can go to and say, “What’s this like?” You have to look up to somebody. And when you see people like him step in, he’s right. He’s absolutely right.

Nettles: This happens. … I appreciate him reaching out for that support and saying, “Let’s not get it twisted here, people.” I mean, let’s keep what is clear and what is important. Don’t worry. We’ll come back. We always come back. We’re here right now today coming back.

Bush: We’ve been trying to play this show [in Bend, Ore.] for almost two years. This show got canceled once and rained out another time, and we just couldn’t give up. We usually don’t give up. Whenever a show comes off our books, it usually goes right back on our books the first chance we can. Which is sometimes, awkwardly, a year later, but we still do it.

I heard part of your soundcheck, and your voice sounds great. How does it feel?

Nettles: It feels good. I mean, I am tender with it. I will be protective of it in that way, but at the end of the day, these people are here to see us have a good time and hear our music. And if I get out there and do my best, then they’re going to like it.

What’s the prognosis moving forward?

Nettles: The prognosis is to have a good rest of the tour and a healthy rest of the summer. I mean, let’s keep it between the ditches, make the right decisions and rock the rest of the people till we get done in October.

Bush: We’ll rock ’em till October is done. Then we get a little time off.