Whitney Pastorek
July 18, 2008 AT 04:00 AM EDT

High on the rolling plains of western Colorado, the crowd at the 17th annual Country Jam has endured dust and heat to see Atlanta duo Sugarland close out the weekend. In concert, lead singer Jennifer Nettles, 33, and her partner, singer-guitarist-mandolinist Kristian Bush, 38, are something akin to a basket full of puppies, and their energy soon jumps to the crowd: Grown men climb out of their lawn chairs to dance. Preteen girls mouth aspirational lines like ”I ain’t settlin’/for anything less than everything” while fixated on Nettles’ empathetic face. The sky turns from blue to amber, then fades to black, leaving only the band on stage to illuminate 25,000 broad, contagious smiles.

Those grins have a lot to do with how Sugarland have grown into one of country’s most successful and beloved acts. Both their 2004 debut, Twice the Speed of Life, and its 2006 follow-up, Enjoy the Ride, have gone double platinum. They’ve scored eight country top 10 hits, and even noncountry fans might recognize them for contributing the Good Morning America theme song, as well as Nettles’ 2006 duet with Jon Bon Jovi on ”Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” In 2007, they became only the second band since 1992 to unseat Brooks & Dunn as the Country Music Association’s Vocal Duo of the Year. Best of all, the lithe frontwoman with the camp-counselor vibe and her irrepressible partner have distributed messages of self-respect and joy, simply by disguising them as pop country hits.

On July 22, Sugarland will release their third album, Love on the Inside, an unusually diverse CD that attempts to expand the template of mainstream country by embracing old-school R.E.M., Marvin Gaye, even hair metal. It’s not a Carrie Underwood-style crossover they’re after — Nettles knows her sweet twang is a liability, and calls the idea ”interesting” but not ”important.” They just want to see what they’re capable of, a luxury that comes after millions of records sold. ”We’ve earned the space to express ourselves,” says Bush. Nettles calls the theme of the new record ”Let’s find a voice, and celebrate it.”

Enthusiastically disregarding conventional country fence lines is nothing new for Sugarland; in fact, it’s become something of a trademark. They turned Beyoncé’s ”Irreplaceable” into a bluegrass number, then performed it on national TV — with Beyoncé. They’re currently climbing the charts with a live take on the Dream Academy’s 1985 pop hit ”Life in a Northern Town,” and recently started using Flaming Lips-style plastic hamster balls to crawl over audiences during shows. Nettles — surely one of the few women in her genre to have broken a finger leaping off a drum riser — even harbors fantasies of throwing hip-hop hype into her banter, joking around (off stage) with lines like ”Do the ladies rock this motherf—er? Hell, yeah!” That’s not the best idea, but it’s funny, and fun to imagine. ”We’ve been the singer-songwriter in the coffee shop,” she says. ”Now we wanna try something else.”

Nettles grew up in rural Georgia, Bush in backwoods Tennessee. Both moved to Atlanta for college, and started playing around the city’s crunchy alterna-folk scene. They first met at influential Decatur club Eddie’s Attic, and in 2003 they convened at a Starbucks with another local artist named Kristen Hall to plot a collaboration. Since country seemed like the genre most open to singer-songwriters at the time, the trio decided to take a stab at Nashville. Their combined experience and individual fan bases made them a valuable commodity, and they signed to Mercury Nashville in 2003. Bush bought his first cowboy hat (eBay, $9.98) so friends would believe he was serious. ”We all approached it as a side project to our other musical lives,” says Nettles. ”And when we started writing, we knew it was good.” The second song they penned together, Speed of Life‘s ”Baby Girl,” eventually spent 46 weeks on the country charts, peaking at No. 2.

In 2006 Hall left the group to focus on songwriting, and Bush and Nettles carried on as a duo. They logged hardcore miles, playing 200 dates a year in front of increasingly devoted crowds. ”[Country fans] have an acute ability to pick out posers,” says CMT executive VP Brian Philips, who compares the group’s genre-juicing emergence to that of the Dixie Chicks. ”Within 10 seconds of a Sugarland performance, you know Jennifer is being honest and uncontrived.” But, he adds, ”I think they’re bigger than country.” At the very least, Nettles sees Nashville changing. ”What is country anymore?” she asks.

Love on the Inside feels like the answer in album form. Written over the course of a year and recorded live at Atlanta’s famed Southern Tracks, it reveals Bush and Nettles as closet music geeks, the kind who spent their teen years lying on the bed with headphones, picking apart great records to see how they work. Bush is more present than ever, his singing and crisp mandolin bursting through the stripped-down production, his encyclopedic musical knowledge informing Appalachian harmonies and epic electric guitar solos. ”As songwriters, artists, creators, we haven’t fully engaged the whole muscle until right now,” Bush says. He points to ”Love” — a thunderous U2-style anthem — as an example of that muscle in full flex. ”When I listen to it, I’m like, ‘We did that?”’ he says. ”I love that feeling. Holy crap. Listen to us be so unafraid.”

Two days after Country Jam, Sugarland are performing at the San Diego County Fair. During the preshow meet-and-greet, a long line of eager fans snakes between the backstage trailers: well-fed couples, older ladies from Georgia, tiny blond girls with icy blue eyes. As Bush and Nettles lean in to hug sweaty strangers, a venue manager sighs, ”This would go a lot faster if they weren’t so nice.”

The crush of the summer-festival season isn’t the best time for this band to put out an album, but response to Love on the Inside‘s first single, ”All I Want to Do” (No. 1 on CMT for seven straight weeks), has bumped the release date up by two months. Now there’s radio and television promotion to be done, and a fall headlining tour to be planned, all without disrupting the prime directive: Take the stage every night with a prayer and a fist bump, sing through the hits, and make another couple thousand people feel good about themselves.

That last part is not a challenge for Bush, a man who’ll climb to the top of a lighting truss just to connect with some dude in mezzanine row X. Nettles, too, appears perfectly in sync with the needs of her audience. On May 18, she became the second female artist in history to single-handedly pen the Academy of Country Music’s Song and Single of the Year, when ”Stay,” a cheatin’ song told from the perspective of the other woman, took both categories. In the family-values-obsessed culture of Nashville, its social politics were a risk. Yet rather than scandalizing their audience, ”Stay” cemented Sugarland as the No. 1 purveyor of musical affirmation to the women of America. ”I’m watching females come together and go, ‘Thank you,”’ says Bush. ”You never see guys going, ‘David Lee Roth! Thank you for speaking my truth!”’ But to write this band off as some sort of girl-power phenomenon would be unfair. ”We’re not writing a bunch of girl songs,” Bush says. ”We’re writing a bunch of human songs, delivered by a very powerful female singer.”

Nettles is a breakout star, no question, and rumors constantly swirl of an impending solo career. But she denies such a move is in the works, and is quick to stress her partner’s contributions. ”Who’s to say that Kristian couldn’t have a time when he wants to go solo?” she asks, emphasizing Bush’s talent, as well as his unflagging emotional support in coping with a sometimes-intrusive public eye. ”He is the only person who feels even a percentage of the weight the way I feel it,” she says. They are as balanced as people who spend an appalling amount of time within literally an arm’s reach of each other can be. Compulsively healthy, they share both a yoga instructor and a therapist, and limit on-tour debauchery to Cool Ranch Doritos. They sleep with matching humidifiers nestled in the narrow aisle between their bunks. Not surprisingly, such intimacy has led to a pesky rumor of a different sort. But while affection runs deep, Bush is married, Nettles has a boyfriend, and this is a perfect creative symbiosis, nothing more.

That intense rapport has helped guide them through a career that Bush at one point describes as a ”controlled stumble.” Nettles, however, will have none of such self-deprecation. ”’Stumble,’ I think, is a very humble way of acknowledging the part of this that is bigger than us,” she says. ”It does feel like stumbling sometimes, because you can’t believe this is happening like we planned it.” Nettles and Bush may not have set out to revolutionize country music, but if their new album does manage to reinvent the genre, they won’t complain. ”If somebody’s gonna be in that slot…” starts Bush. Nettles jumps in to finish the thought: ”…might as well be us. Somebody’s gotta do it. And why not us? We’re nice people.”

Sugarland 60-Second Bio

Members
Jennifer Nettles, 33
Born: Douglas, Ga.

Kristian Bush, 38
Born: Knoxville, Tenn.

Previous Albums
2004’s Twice the Speed of Life: 2.4 million sold, three top 10 country singles
2006’s Enjoy the Ride: 2.2 million sold, four top 10 country singles

Prior Engagements
Nettles cofounded the duo Soul Miner’s Daughter in college, then toured with her own eponymous band, playing Lilith Fair in 1999. Bush was one half of Billy Pilgrim, a duo that released two albums on Atlantic and opened for Melissa Etheridge before being dropped in the wake of Hootie & the Blowfish’s world domination.

Extra ‘Love’
On July 22, Love on the Inside — whose cover art was inspired by a tattoo on Nettles’ right arm — is being released as a deluxe edition. It features five bonus songs: three new originals, plus the band’s live covers of ”Life in a Northern Town” and San Francisco singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson’s ”Come On Get Higher.” A version without the extras will be available July 29.

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