Sugarland — A Day in the Life
"It's taken us a little while to form the whole team," adds Kristian's partner, Sugarland's vocal powerhouse Jennifer Nettles, who's more like a cool big sister than mama bear to the family. "We travel with 40 or 50 people. It's a lot of positions to fill on a skill level, but also personalities to fill on a personal level. You want to make sure that matches, too."
The four dozen or so personalities who travel with Sugarland are indeed very much like their bosses: hard-working, fun-loving people who are happy to live like gypsies for several months of the year because of their passion for the music.
With six tour buses and ten tractor-trailers full of gear, the traveling 'city' of Sugarland is criss-crossing the country on the lauded duo's Incredible Machine Tour. The Boot was invited along for the ride in Augusta, Ga., just a few hours southeast of Jennifer's hometown and Kristian's adopted hometown of Atlanta. Backstage at the city's landmark James Brown Arena, the crew create their own little village, with a fully-equipped office, a yoga and fitness room, a catering room the size of a small restaurant plus a separate snack bar, dressing rooms and storage rooms. Tapestries are hung on the walls and scented candles are lit to give everyone more of a feeling of home, no matter where they are.
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Sound glamorous? It's not. Our cameras first meet up with Jennifer and Kristian on the basement level of the arena, in a fluorescent-lit hallway full of rolling storage cases and huge laundry bins. "This is a perfect place to start our tour for y'all!" Jennifer smiles, and without saying another word, Kristian has clued in on their inside joke, nodding at his partner with a laugh. So, our cameras start rolling for the start of what is a six-hour shoot with the music superstars, who launch into something of a comedy act, spontaneously (yet flawlessly) playing off one another as they take us on a backstage tour.
"What Kristian is about to show you is one of the prized pieces of a tour, and when he shows you, you'll see why," says Jennifer, standing in front of a laundry bin that looks to be older than she is.
"When this happened, we knew we had hit the big time," Kristian explains as he opens the bin and shouts, "bingo!," revealing a stack of worn -- yet clean -- towels, which apparently are a hot commodity on the road.
Our next stop is catering, which exudes a little more of a celebrity vibe than the laundry. The buffet is both a culinary and aesthetic treat, filled with artful dishes for almost every taste -- carnivorous or vegetarian, dieter or indulger, meat-and-potatoes lover or finicky gourmand. There's everything from sausage and pepper heros to fresh, colorful salads and even ceviche served in tortilla cups. A separate drink bar has every kind of soda, energy drink and health drink you can imagine, along with Jennifer's favorite, the tea bar.
Today, the catering room is filled with a few extra faces, as several of the duo's Atlanta friends have come down for the show, including Kristian's brother and sister-in-law. Luckily, all of today's special guests know not to expect the VIP area to be "glamorama," as Jennifer jokes, unlike some who come backstage only to be shocked by not only the rustic simplicity of it but also the business-like atmosphere. "Many people think that because what they see on stage is a party, what happens backstage is a party, too," she laments. "So that means we are hosting the party."
"It's like a giant wedding reception," Kristian adds with a hint of sarcasm.
"But that's really not the case," says Jennifer. "This isn't a party back here; this is our job. It's like, 'Hi, where do you work? You're a school teacher? Well, I'm going to bring about 20 people to your job, and we expect drinks!' [laughs]"
Indeed, there isn't a trace of an adult beverage backstage -- at least not that we see on our tour, which next leads us to Jennifer and Kristian's dressing rooms. Jennifer's space is 300 square feet at best, with a nondescript brown couch, lamps that still have the plastic covering on their shades, a small coffee table and her wardrobe boxes, which, in their small number, are indicative of the songbird's laid-back, no-fuss personality.
Kristian's dressing room is about the same size and is connected to the locker-room showers, which, in true locker-room style, consist of eight shower heads all together with no partitions. We spot one bucket full of shampoo and toiletries beside a pair of flip-flops, reminiscent of showering at summer camp. Kristian's wardrobe boxes are topped with a row of his signature hats, neatly lined and seemingly color-coordinated. "He has wonderful sense of space," Jennifer says of her singing partner. "His bus, his dressing room ... even his wardrobe case. He has the ability to set those places up with pieces that mean something to him emotionally ... He has a good eye for interior design."
The empty arena is next, where Sugarland reveal to us their majestic set. Keeping with the 'Incredible Machine' theme, it has giant, intricate gears that hold up a huge screen projecting a mix of live images and video clips. Brass gramophones frame the speakers, while an arched bridge connects parts of the stage, which is partially lit with what look to be antique chandeliers.
"Our set is a pretty exciting piece of the puzzle," says Jennifer. "We wanted there to be a steampunk aesthetic ... a visual jumping point. It's a mixture of the Victorian era and Industrial era.
"Kristian is definitely a better visual artist than I am," she continues. "So with his hand, we actually sat down and sketched it out. We want the screen to be an oculus. We want this crazy chandelier piece to do something. That's another thing we are excited about for the set: each piece has more than a visual purpose. Does it provide depth? Does it accept video content? Does it light up or move? At another point of the show, boom! It changes into something else."
"You see a key around Jennifer's neck, and all of a sudden you see it's the thing that's holding up the bridge," says Kristian. "One of the joys of doing it this way is giving things people can discover more and more."
Musically, every album in Sugarland's catalog has been a re-discovery of who they are. Refusing to stick to a formula, the duo followed their easily-categorized contemporary country debut album, 'Twice the Speed of Life,' with more genre-bending studio discs including 'Enjoy the Ride,' 'Love on the Inside' and, of course, 'The Incredible Machine,' which finds the duo exploring more anthemic, rock-leaning songs and even including a touch of reggae.
"We don't want to plagiarize even ourselves," Jennifer explains of the different direction they take with every album. "We've already written 'Baby Girl' ... We want to play that for you, but we don't want to write that again. With each passing album, we want to evolve and hopefully make an artistic revolution. Some people are critical to that ... When you hold up a mirror to someone and say, 'This is who you are in light of who I am and my authenticity,' they might not like what they see."
Fans certainly like what they hear. 'The Incredible Machine' debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard album chart and was certified platinum (indicating sales in excess of one million) after just three months. But with critics, the project was admittedly polarizing. Some praised the duo for pushing boundaries, while others expressed distaste for the duo's departure from traditional country. But this debate didn't start with 'Machine,' as Jennifer and Kristian have been drawing from musical influences ranging from George Strait to Dire Straits for quite some time now. And they're downright tired of being scrutinized for it.
"I get sick of it," Jennifer admits when asked about those who question Sugarland's place in the country genre. "That is actually an industry question and not a fan question. The industry asks it because by compartmentalizing something, it's how they make money. I am knowledgeable enough and love the legacy of country music enough to know we play in the margin. At the same time, when you think about Loretta Lynn's 'The Pill' or 'Fist City' ...
"Country music has reinvented itself," Kristian interjects. "Fans don't think that way, and that's what matters."
"When you think about Johnny Cash from a musical perspective, people were sold to what he was doing at the time," Jennifer insists. "At the end of the day, slow and steady wins the race. He stuck to it and we stuck to it."
"And we can't help but be a little more provocative," Kristian adds. "We are getting to this beautiful space where our fans are starting to support it and not only that, but are wanting and expecting it. It's starting to work."
After talking with The Boot about the new music and the goosebump-inducing joy they get from audiences singing back their lyrics to them every night, it's time for soundcheck. Jennifer grabs a cup of hot tea to help soothe her famous pipes and meets Kristian on the side of the James Brown Arena stage, in front of which about 40 specially-invited fans have gathered to watch. Faces light up and applause fills the venue as the duo take their mics and proceed to talk to their small audience as if they were just chatting at a dinner party.
The fan socializing continues about an hour later, after a cat nap and a wardrobe change for the two, as they head back to the catering room for a meet-and-greet. Close to 200 of the night's attendees have scored the chance, be it through Sugarland's fan club or a radio station contest, to meet Jennifer and Kristian up close and personally, and the room is filled with the giddy air of anticipation. Our cameras follow the duo as they enter the room to shrieks and applause, and take their place at the James Brown Arena backdrop to pose for pictures and have individual chats with their admiring fans.
"They're just as much a part of the show as we are," Jennifer says of Sugarland's concertgoers. "There's spontaneity in that each night is a different group of people. What they bring to the table, be it in signs they share or [stories they tell] ... It's such an honor and so fun to be part of someone's life story. So to get to interact and see that some people are sharing their stories, it adds an element of spontaneity."
Spontaneity also comes into play when finding the right spot backstage to do the pre-show vocal warmup. While Jennifer retreats to her dressing room to prep her powerful pipes by running through scales, Kristian searches for somewhere with good acoustics, to warm up his own voice and tune his guitar. He finds the perfect place in those oh-so-glamorous locker room showers, which we find have surprisingly awesome acoustics. Our cameras capture the guitarist singing solo in the shower, reminding us that it isn't just Jennifer who has one of the most unique voices in country music.
It's now three minutes until showtime, and that means time for a tour-family tradition: the prayer circle. Every single member of Sugarland's crew, from the drummer to the lighting tech, leave their posts to meet the duo just a few yards behind the stage, form a circle with their arms interlocked and bow their heads. Jennifer takes the lead in thanking God for the wonderful friends, fans and family who join them in Augusta tonight and asks for strength to put on the best show they can.
And that they did.
Kicking off their concert with the rousing 'All We Are' set the high-energy tone for the night. The duo got a great workout in the almost two-hour set, jumping around the stage and dancing, which at one point was the catalyst for laughter. As spotlights panned the crowd five songs into the set, Jennifer spotted one of her old classmates about ten rows up the stands and proceeded to have a conversation with him in front of the sold-out audience of nearly 8,000. "Is that your family? They let you have kids?" Jennifer joked with her hometown buddy, explaining to the crowd that she hadn't seen him since her 1993 high school prom. "But I was doing a different kind of dancing back then," she continued, and then launched into some pretty impressive Roger Rabbit moves, as the audience erupted in laughter and cheers.
The Augusta set-list included Sugarland staples 'Baby Girl,' 'All I Wanna Do,' 'Stay' and 'Settlin',' along with newer songs that got just as big of a reaction from the audience, such as 'Stand Up,' 'Tonight,' 'Every Girl Like Me' and 'Little Miss,' capped by an encore surprise: Madonna's 'Like a Prayer.'
Staying true to their assertion that the audience is as much a part of the show as they are, Sugarland often let the crowd take over lead vocals, and even when they controlled the mic themselves, the fans were singing just as loud. Throughout the night, both Jennifer and Kristian constantly sought out fans to make one-on-one eye contact, giving them a little wave, a point or a wink and making them feel very much a part of the Sugarland family, too.
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