(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
This is a name to watch:
Sugarland. It's not every day you see a fully-formed country band pop up in Nashville and play a debut showcase with power,
authority and flair and with fully realized original songs.
But that's just what happened Wednesday evening (July
23) at the Nashville club 12th & Porter. The seven-piece band (four of whom sing) played a 6 p.m. midweek showcase that attracted
a horde of fans and curious people from the country music industry.
In the crowd, I spied Universal Music Nashville
head Luke Lewis and his A&R chief David Conrad, Lyric Street Records' vice president Doug Howard, the Recording Academy's
Garth Fundis and numerous representatives from the worlds of publishing, performing rights and songwriting.
are from Atlanta, where the core members have labored alone and with other groups and have been writing for years. They've
been together as a group less than a year. How interesting to see a group with a woman as drummer, a drummer who also sings.
She's Simone Simonton, who had her own group, Lift, and played with the Indigo Girls. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Kristen
Hall is well known in Atlanta clubs and has recorded a series of solo CDs. Singer-songwriter-mandolin player Kristian Bush
was half of the folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim. Electric guitarist Bret Hartley performed with Billy Pilgrim. Bassist Clay Cook
co-wrote songs on John Mayer's album Room for Squares. (Cook and Mayer once made up the acoustic duo Lo-Fi Masters).
Steel player Mark Van Allen rounds out the group's sound -- churning, driving roadhouse, slightly pop-ish country.
secret weapon is lead singer Jennifer Nettles, who has presence and attitude to spare and a set of pipes that can knock you
down at 20 paces. And a vivacious sense of humor. How could she be otherwise, for someone who once fronted a group named Soul
Miner's Daughter? She knows how to control a stage and has a sly, bluesy vocal delivery that floats seemingly effortlessly
above the music. Her big voice alternately caresses words languorously and then kicks them out with a fury. In a word --
three words actually -- she kicks ass.
I cannot tell you the last time that I saw a new group or new artist with such
stage confidence and such a sure grasp of their capabilities, their range and their music. It's obvious, of course, that their
confidence and poise comes from the experience of playing in clubs. And that's something you don't often see in recent crops
of aspiring young wannabe Kenny Chesneys and Shania Twains that Nashville has been trying to foist on the public. Being a
singer and writer does not automatically equate to being a performer and an entertainer. Part of the problem country music
faces is a shrinking supply of clubs from which performers like Sugarland can emerge.
At the showcase, some of the
magic came from supportive, hard-core fans, some of whom had come up on a chartered, 50-seat bus from Atlanta -- the fans
paying $50 apiece for the trip. That kind of loyalty is also rare these days and obviously this group has earned it.
is not that far geographically from Nashville -- 248 miles -- but artistically it is so distant that groups there now feel
the need to travel on their own to Nashville to present themselves to the country music industry. I mean, I was chastising
myself: why haven't I heard of people this good just 248 miles away? They've been playing together for almost a year. Why
don't I hear about what's happening in Atlanta? And -- it follows -- why doesn't anybody in Nashville keep up with musical
developments in Atlanta sufficiently so that everybody in town isn't astonished at this sudden invasion of talent? I guess
it's because that in Nashville we are pretty certain that we're at the center of the musical universe.
I mean, Sugarland
may not be the salvation of country music, but the group is so good that it shouldn't be ignored. Don't trust just me. Check
out their music. It's available, unfortunately, only in MP3 samples on their Web site, Sugarlandmusic.com. Or I guess you
could order their little homemade CD, Premium Quality Tunes there. It's a damned good little CD. I'm holding on to