The title of Sugarland’s debut record, Twice the Speed of Life, pretty much sums up the last two years for lead singer Jennifer Nettles, 32. She’s been offering up high-octane performances since she was a tiny girl—at 6 she made her stage debut in the Christmas pageant at the Baptist church in small-town Douglas, Georgia—and writing songs since high school, but it was not until the formation of Sugarland in 2004, when Nettles first met bandmates Kristian Bush and Kristin Hall, that her career really took off. Now, on the verge of releasing Sugarland’s sophomore CD, she’s in the country music stratosphere: Twice the Speed of Life has gone Double Platinum, Sugarland won the Academy of Country Music Award for Top New Duo/Vocal Group, and Nettles’ duet with Bon Jovi, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,”—a tribute to Habitat for Humanity—was the first rock song ever to go to #1 on the country charts. And at the Grammys this year Nettles learned that Sugarland has a huge new fan: Paul McCartney.
Q: Do you ever think about how far you come—from singing in the church choir to singing at the Grammys?
A: You have to take a moment to pinch yourself and say, “Wow!” Because everything moves so quickly, and there’s always something to be done and always something new, and sometimes you get desensitized to it because you get so accustomed to change.
Q: You’ve said that singing in church helped you in your stage career. How so?
A: It allowed me to see people sing from their hearts. It’s important to sing what you know and sing what you believe, or else listeners are not going to believe it. For me it’s a really sacred space, to be able to get up there and connect with human beings that way.
Q: You’re a singer-songwriter in a genre where most artists record other writers’ songs.
A: Some people get out there and they bring someone else’s song in, and they make it their own. And that’s a beautiful thing. But I feel that it makes an even deeper connection with the audience if these songs are stories that have been created through you.
Q: Until recently, the biggest young country acts were men. What’s it like to be a woman in country music today?
A: Female singers are the new face of country music, but radio stations are still hesitant to take chances on them. I don’t know what causes it, but that is the situation. And there’s a part of me that goes, “It has been like this from the beginning, ladies, and this is the world we live in. Put on your big-girl panties and show ‘em! Don’t stop, don’t take no, believe in yourself, and put something good out there and say something!” Women want to connect to something that is rich and tangible and real.
Q: When Sugarland was writing Twice the Speed of Life, you had plenty of time to lie around in the grass and dream up songs. How are you able to write and tour at the same time?
A: It has been such an adjustment because writing is so vulnerable. We did some writing out on the road, in hotel rooms. Luckily the people we wrote with on this record are not only wonderful artists but great people, and we felt really comfortable with them and were able to get to that vulnerable place and write. With this record I can definitely say every word that I sing, I mean it. Every night when I stand up on stage, every line that I sing, I believe it.
Q: Have you been road-testing the new songs?
A: People are so excited when we tell them, “You’re going to be the guinea pigs tonight; we’re going to try out some new stuff and see how you like it.” It has been a gift to watch these songs develop, to see them grow onstage and turn into something bigger than we had imagined. It feels like snapshots of people’s lives. It feels like Americana to me.
Q: And “Americana” doesn’t necessarily mean Southern, does it?
A: We have a song called “Everyday America” on this record, and every night when I introduce it, I say, “I’m from a small town in south Georgia, and I guarantee you we have the same stories. You have the same quarterback of the football team and the captain of the cheerleaders and the people in the band, and your heart is broken by your first love. We grieve the same losses and celebrate the same victories. It’s the human experience.
Q: Now that you’re literally traveling from one end of the country to the other, how’s your husband taking all this? You’re not home much any more.
A: It is definitely an adjustment, but even from the beginning, when he and I started dated, this is what I did. I played music. And, granted, the change has been big since Sugarland happened, but you have to be adaptable and flexible.
Q: What’s the secret to being flexible?
A: As far as practical things, talking on the phone. But as for something a bit more spiritual, just like in any other marriage you have to be able to allow that person to change, and to change yourself. And you have to look at each other and go, “Okay, we’re going to do this together. Are we still on the same path here?” You have to take inventory, or else you’ll end up looking at each other one day, going, “Who are you?” But we’re hoping the schedule opens up a little bit, and I can be home more. Last year we did 150 shows; this year we’re doing about a hundred.
Q: Kristin left the band earlier this year to pursue songwriting full-time. Do you see her departure as a casualty of the grueling tour schedule?
A: Yes, I do, absolutely.
Q: What are you going to do to make sure you don’t burn out on it, too?
A: We’re very different people. It isn’t for everybody, but I enjoy it. It’s not counter to my personality at all, so consequently I’m happy in it. Now that’s not to say I don’t have moments when I say, “We need a couple of days off.” You need to have a life outside so you have inspiration and emotion to pull from when you’re on that stage.
Q: I’ve read you’ve just bought a new house. Are you happy to have a nest to come back to?
A: I’ve never owned a house before. It’s not a mansion, but it’s enough space for us—we don’t have children yet—and it’s in a nice area.
Q: But you see yourself as a mother some day?
A: Some day. Once you have kids, that becomes the focus. Not just because it has to, but because you want it to. But this requires so much of me right now, and it’s still so new, that I can’t imagine having that big a responsibility too. Once I have a kid, there’s no way I’m not going to do it the right way.
Q: Do you have any country music role models for combining work and motherhood?
A: Most all the female artists have kids—I mean, you look at Faith, you look at Reba, you look at Sara Evans. It doesn’t feel unattainable. And that’s one of the things Kristian has said, that in country music you can have a career and a family. He has two kids; they’re four and one, and they are gorgeous. And I have a goddaughter who’s two, so I get my fix—squeeze ‘em and smell ‘em and play with ‘em, and then hand ‘em back!
Q: I hear you had a few words with Paul McCartney at the Grammys.
A: With Paul—I mean Sir Paul!—we were walking by, and he stopped Kristian and said, “Hey, I just want you to know I watched your sound check and I really love it.” And Kristian was like, “Jennifer! Jennifer!” So I walked back, and we spoke, and he was very, very nice. Here he is, Paul McCartney, a Beatle, and he’s saying he likes our music! Unbelievable!
Q: And that was on top of the Bon Jovi duet. What was that like?
A: So fun! Especially since I love them and had their t-shirts when I was in junior high. It was like the soundtrack of my youth, that Slippery When Wet album.
Q: Weren’t you terrified? It’s one thing to meet Paul McCartney and another thing to sing with the soundtrack of your youth.
A: It was just so thrilling. It was more thrilling than intimidating. That’s just how I looked at it—like I’m going to go out there and be who I am and bring to this music what I can.
Q: How does it feel to know that country music is everywhere now—even in Bon Jovi concerts? Is the rest of the country finally getting it?
A: There was a time in the 80s when Rita Coolidge, Crystal Gayle, Linda Ronstadt, Juice Newton were all pop-country artists. It feels like country music is coming around for the first time because it’s more visible now. It’s the genre of music that’s up in record sales where all the others are declining. Everything else out there is homogenous, and people want to be challenged and inspired.
Q: What’s the best thing, and the worst thing, about being a country star?
A: The best thing is being able do what I love for a living and get on stage every night and play the songs that I write. To connect with people. That is the best moment, the whole reason I do this. The worst: I’m tired. You have to put so much out there to keep all those things afloat. Every woman knows what that’s like, juggling the glass balls. And then you put it under this speed, this rapid change, and it magnifies all the issues that the balm of the day-to-day would normally smooth over. You can’t ignore any little fissure that comes up in a relationship or in your health—you have to address it. And it takes a lot of energy.
Q: But you seem to thrive on it, in spite of the exhaustion.
A: It makes me feel alive. As tired as I am, I know I’m tired and alive.