NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Watch This Group, Sugarland

Recalling Nashville's First Taste of the Band

Editor's note: While Chet Flippo takes a break from writing this week, it's interesting to revisit his Nashville Skyline column from July 24, 2003, about a new, unsigned band named Sugarland.

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.

Sugarland 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.

Their 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.

Atlanta 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, 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 my copy.

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