MOMENTOUS MONDAYS: INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS OF ALL TIME – WEEK 71: SUGARLAND + JENNIFER NETTLES

Country music has always had this unique and fascinating sound associated with the music genre, since…well, since before I can even conceive and remember. It was only until recently (2019 when I started venturing out of my safe space of CCM) that I discovered the big plethora of music out there, from rock, pop, easy-listening, folk and Aussie music, to the music genre that I reckon gets the most flack and attention- country music. Yes, country music has been there since the beginning of music itself; and has been a big influence on the music industry, period, so much so that country music has their own array of award shows at various points throughout the year. While I myself am yet to become across all these country artists of the various decades, what I have listened to throughout the last few years has been nothing but a unique and emotive experience. Yes, now I can say and be proud that I am indeed a country fan- not a full-on die-hard one that follows every single country music artist out there at this point in time, but more of a country-music fan that appreciates the country music of the last 10 – 20 years or so, enjoying more of the seasoned veterans like Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill, Lady A and Little Big Town, more so than the current crop of country artists at the moment. Maybe it’s just me, and I love a bit of nostalgia and a sound more curated to the 1990s and the 2000s, but whatever the case may be, I’ve been enjoying the country music I’m hearing thus far within these last few years. With intentionality and purpose, heartfelt moments of confrontation and poignancy; country artists of yesteryear seem to stand the test of time, even if we may think that whatever they’re writing and singing about back then, may not necessarily be as applicable to this current time period. Nevertheless, country music has always tugged at the heart of myself over the last few years, and it is once again the musical genre of said artist I’m about to discuss in this blog post.

Maybe I’m getting a little bit overboard in my last paragraph. It’s not that other genres aren’t good. Over the last few years, I’ve been impressed with the hard rock goodness of U2, the singer-songwriter atmosphere of John Mayer, the piano driven music of Sarah McLachlan as well as the powerhouse singing and vocal prowess of Adele, not to mention the Aussie anthems of John Farnham, the thought-provoking rap music of Lecrae, the angsty rock of Alanis Morissette, as well as the pop goodness showcases through boy-band Backstreet Boys. But even in all of that musical-genre exploration that I’ve done the last couple of years or so, I somehow keep coming back to CCM (because that is what I grew up with), and surprisingly…country music. And the country music that is of the 1990s/2000s era. Maybe I’m more of an ‘old soul’ when it comes to my very own music appreciation, than I can even admit or realise. Not that I don’t love any country music of today either- artists like Lauren Alania, Lindsay Ell, Hunter Hayes, Thomas Rhett and Cassadee Pope have impressed with powerful songs and a style of country music that I’m becoming fonder of, as the years continue to progress. But even still, I am nevertheless gravitating to the more established country artists for songs that continue to impact and influence, even now in 2021. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

2019 was probably the most growing-up I did in terms of my very own musical tastes. This blog post series unlocked music in a way that I was otherwise unaware. Though CCM will forever be the ‘style’ of music I’d continue to turn to for more inspirational music in the forms of artists like Tenth Avenue North, Casting Crowns, Delirious?, for KING AND COUNTRY, Skillet, Rebecca St. James, Switchfoot, Carman, needtobreathe, Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith (to name a few- all of which I blogged about, at one point or another during this post series!); February 6th 2019 was the date where I went on a journey thought it’d be over in about a year. Boy, was I totally wrong…and in the best possible way! Here I am in January 2021, about to embark on blog #71, and while this series so far is only a snapshot into the wide array of music that I know I’m still not qualified enough to assert my own opinions of, I’ve nevertheless enjoyed being impacted and encouraged by the music I’ve listened so far within the last 2 years. Artists like Lecrae gave me an appreciation for rap that I may not have even had prior, while artists like Tenth Avenue North, Delirious? and Switchfoot all reminded me of why I rate each of these three bands as some of my very favourites of all time. Pentatonix gave me a new appreciation for the hard-but-unique genre of acapella, whilst my love for Australian music grew throughout the last few years- with artists like Guy Sebastian, Delta Goodrem, Vanessa Amorosi, John Farnham, Missy Higgins and for KING AND COUNTRY all giving me a sense of pride whenever I hear these Aussie artists, knowing how thankful I am to be in a country that gives us great artists, and underrated ones too! And yet there is one genre of music that has continued to be on my radar for years.

Country music has been one such genre where over the past little while, my preconceptions of it started to shatter, as my initial assumptions of the genre being very superficial (only singing about girls, cars, beer, trucks, having a good time, so on and so on and…you get the picture!) were shattered one by one with the introductions of artists like Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, Lady A and Little Big Town from 2019 onward. Now standing here at the beginning of 2021, I can firmly state that country music isn’t just about beer, and trucks and girls, and cars and beer, and more beer….it can be; but what country music offers to the world of music in general (and to the rest of the world) is music that for the most part, is honest and heartfelt, of about relationships, or even the struggles people feel in their lives on a day-to-day basis. Country music, by and large, is a collective that continues to grow, and amass fans and followers, and for good reason too. Though a genre that seems to be brushed in favour of pop and rock; country seems to be where to go if you want to hear a song that tugs at the feelings and gives us motivation and impetus to make your life better, after hearing a story-through-song about someone else who may have had a worse day than you. I’ve been thoroughly blessed to hear and enjoy the style of music, that I initially dismissed not too long ago as being one of the most superficial styles of music, ever. Alas, I was incredibly humbled by this blogging experience, and as I present Sugarland (and Jennifer Nettles the solo artist) to be what this next blog will be about, I’ve become someone that’s caught myself going to country music for hope, comfort, poignancy, and perspective over the last year or so. While I still have a way to go to classify it as my favourite genre of music, I’d probably classify it as #2 behind CCM, and that is saying quite a bit!

I’m not really sure where I heard Sugarland first. I knew of Jennifer Nettles for a little while (she did record a duet of ‘Christmas Day’ with Michael W. Smith way back in 2014, as well as also recording a duet with Josh Groban for his song ’99 Years’ from his 2018 album Bridges) so I knew of her. And yet, it was only in 2021 (yes, Sugarland is a late edition to this blog post list) that I managed to get onto the bandwagon of listening to this duo- starting off with their 2004 song ‘Something More’, that I heard from just listening to a 2000s music playlist on Spotify in the early week of January 2021. And while I never really sought out Sugarland’s music (or Jennifer Nettles’ for that matter), I was however intrigued to hear and see that their musical style was certainly akin to artists like Lady A, Martina McBride and Faith Hill, artists I heard before and wrote about each of them for my blog series not that long ago. Listening to ‘Something More’ led me to more songs by this duo…and I guess you know what happened next. A duo that is most certainly underrated in their craft and musical ability to create country music that can traverse and fit into the spheres of pop and other A/C formats, Sugarland has been an artist under the radar for quite possibly their whole career- because aside from the country music industry and country music fans, by and large, people don’t really know Sugarland or their music as much as other well-known artists, like Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Lady A, Martina McBride, Shania Twain and The Chicks, to name a few. And maybe that’s ok.

For a band to continue from its inception in 2004, to now in 2021, years later, and for them to keep going to produce powerful hits, is a feat in and of itself, especially if their band name isn’t really a household one. And therein lies my point as to why certain artists are influential- because they’re not as popular as the rest. I’ve said time and time again that popularity and influence don’t always have to go hand in hand, and maybe people have assumed that they do, for quite some time. Just because an artist and their music are popular, doesn’t make them influential at all, and vice versa. Sugarland by definition, isn’t popular, not in a sense that people use the word ‘popular’ so flippantly today. And yet I feel like Sugarland’s music is as much needed in the society of today, than when these songs were created during the 2000s onward- for both Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have set up this duo in a way that allows both to shine in their respective roles- Jennifer in her vocal delivery and powerful singing, and Kristian with his instrumentation, backing vocals and songwriting abilities. Sugarland debuted at a time where country music was starting to become popular again, and while today, they aren’t as uniquely defined as they were back then; their music still resonates and challenges. With 6 albums under their belt (inclusive of a Christmas album in 2009), alongside Jennifer’s own 3 (+ 1 EP) that she undertook when she was a solo artist during the hiatus of Sugarland’s 5th and 6th albums; we see the passion and enthusiasm that both Jennifer and Kristian have delivered to us over the years, and while many can even debate as to why they are even considered to be in this blog post series; I’ve nevertheless been able to enjoy their music from the get go- and with songs like ‘Something More’, ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’, ‘Stay’, ‘Stuck Like Glue’, ‘Everyday America’, ‘Settlin’ and ‘Want To’, and the amazing plethora of musical styles that these songs cover ground on, it’s almost a no-brainer to discuss the influence this band has had on country music, even music as a whole, and even an impact on my own life these past few weeks since hearing the band not that long ago!

Sugarland started off their career in 2004 with their album release of Twice the Speed of Life. It’s full of heartfelt songs that just as appeal to the time of 17 years ago, as it can be applied to the situation of 2021, as I’ve found myself being drawn to a lot of these songs on this album, as I’m reminded of the running theme of the album as a whole- to embrace life in all of its follies and faults, it’s joys and triumphs, and to live wholeheartedly without any reservation or hesitation. ‘Something More’ was the first song I heard from Sugarland, and, thinking that it was a Lady A song, I thought ‘gee, that sounds something different than what Hillary Scott would usually sing’. I investigated, and the rest- well, I realised that both Sugarland and Lady A have had their successes over the years; and have influenced different aspects of the scope of country music, and music in general. ‘Something More’ carried a weight about it that I hadn’t really seen much in country music previously, having a bit of a rock personality to it and maybe even a bit of a reggae groove as well. With Jennifer herself having a very distinctive southern drawl in her voice (in very much a good way, and similar to that Hillary Scott as well), we see ‘Something More’ tap into a theme that yearning and longing for something more than what is presented to us right now. The persona can be indictive of all of us to a degree- as we wake up at a certain point in our lives; and wonder if there’s more to life that what we are experiencing right now. The song is about all the things about this life that makes it well worth it to live out- taking chances, finding what the purpose of life really is, and realising that working non-stop to create a life you may not necessarily live (because of said work) is just as damaging, maybe even more so, than not working in life at all. ‘Something More’ challenges this notion of what it means to live a fulfilled life, and what to prioritise in order for us to not lose ourselves in the sea of everyday life.

‘Baby Girl’ was the first single ever that Sugarland released in 2004, and just like ‘Something More’, depicted a persona going through life, trying to figure out what their own purpose is and how to structure their passions and gifts. In fact, ‘Baby Girl’ would have to be the ‘prequel’ to ‘Something More’, as we see a young girl in ‘Baby Girl’, trying to make it out in the world, exploring and coming into her own, all the while writing back to her parents, stating to her parents to ‘…please send money, I’m so broke that it ain’t funny, I don’t need much just enough to get me through, please don’t worry cause I’m alright, I’m playing here at the bar tonight, this time I’m gonna make our dreams come true, well I love you more than anything in the world, love, your baby girl…’ It is about a person who is grinding in life, who isn’t necessarily getting what they want and aspire right away, but is making the best with what they have, working hard to achieve goals they’ve set out to accomplish. A song that ought to be a way for people to relate to other people who are in the predicament of hard-grinding everyday job work, all the while aspiring to be entrepreneurs and businesspeople; ‘Baby Girl’ is a reminder that we are all children in the eyes of our parents, and no matter how old we get and how much help we may need in life, they’ll always (in most cases, they should) help us in whatever capacity they can in order for us to reach our goals in such a way that we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us, along the way.

Sugarland also present the themes of trying to escape the mundaneness of life and to have a time in your life where you can be carefree and unpredictable (‘Down in Mississippi [Up to No Good]’), longing for the life in the big city and to move away from the small town of youth, and the excitement and anticipation that comes along with the hope of being carried away ‘…so far away, may my body never, touch the ground, and If I promise you that I’ll be back someday, will you set me free so I can fly away…’ (‘Fly Away’), and the insane quickness of how life can just breeze you by without even knowing it, and understanding that life is just going at a speed that is often too fast for us to handle, and all we can do in some circumstances, is to just hold on and enjoy the ride (‘Speed of Life’). ‘Stand Back Up’, the album closer, is a more subdued song on the album and reminds me of something that CCM powerhouses Point of Grace could’ve sung and covered way back in the day, as the song itself presents to us an inspirational message of standing back up in the midst of being in the darkness, being heartbroken and at the end of our rope; while the song ‘Just Might (Make You Believe)’ is perhaps one of the most emotional songs from Sugarland from their 2000s era of music. The song depicts real issues and problems a couple could be having- even to the point where the persona declares that sometimes love is not enough. And yet the song is all the more hopeful as well, as the chorus longs for the connection between the couple, and declares that ‘…if you look in my eyes, and tell me we’ll be alright, if you promise never to leave, you just might make me believe…’ It’s not assurance that everything in life will be ok, and that everything from here on out will be rosy, but it is comfort enough to fight for a relationship you believe in, for one more day, and sometimes, that’s all it needs for a perspective to change from hopelessness to one of possibility.

Quite possibly the big change that happened in Sugarland earlier on during their music career, was changing from a trio into a duo. Founding member Kristen Hall left the band unexpectedly in 2005, and you can read about all the controversy here, but what I will say is this- that when band members leave and there’s a lawsuit involved, it’s very unfortunate. Nevertheless, the band still continued to give to people, songs full of poignancy and hard-hitting truth, of fun-filled joyous and infectious melodic numbers, alongside other deep, meaningful and introspective material. From the years of being a duo from 2006 to present, Sugarland have presented to us songs for each occasion of life, and are fast becoming, for me, one of the most underrated country artists/bands…ever. 2006 saw the release of Enjoy the Ride, the first release by Sugarland as a duo, and with infectious melodic hooks and an atmosphere of hope and positivity, we see a ton of songs that I myself have been impressed upon my heart with, as this duo is a great reminder of presenting real-life situations as backdrops of songs themselves, a tool of telling a story and trying to find some real-life application in such a crazy world we live in. ‘Settlin’ is the first song on Sugarland’s second album; and starts off their sophomore record with a strong guitar driven anthem about not settling down for second-best, for the so-so and ‘just getting by’, because to settle means to compromise and to not feel like you’re moving anywhere. Why settle when it comes to relationships (which is where the song is alluding to)? For there is a standard we all as humans should aspire to and long to become, and if our life is not meeting that, then maybe, perhaps we’re settling for something that maybe we shouldn’t be.

‘Happy Ending’, also from Enjoy the Ride, depicts the themes of happy endings, and meaningful in-betweens, as we understand and realise that in light of our own mortality, and the finite time we can have here on this earth, our lives ought to count. Our happy ending is happy because of who we spent our lives with and our relationships that formed along the way, rather than the things we amassed in the material. ‘Everyday America’, is a groovy pop-orientated song depicting everyday life for everyday citizens in everyday America (while the song depicts situations- like football, that is more relatable to Americans, the song itself can translate to various other countries in the world too!), and features a very cool music video of Jennifer and Kristian singing the song and having fun in a grocery store; while ‘County Line’ depicts this place called the ‘county line’- be it physical or even metaphorical, where everything goes into perspective, and you do life with people and fellowship with friends as life gains a new focus as worries are realigned into opportunities than things that eat a person up on a daily basis.

‘Want To’ shows us all the often real-life dilemma facing friends, when they realise that both of them may feel things for the other, but are too afraid to change from friends to ‘lovers’ for fear that the relationship could end differently than what they themselves want, and yet, ‘Want To’ is a reminder to also be in touch with your own feelings yourself, that if you do have crushes on ‘friends’, to figure things out either way, because not knowing and being stagnant is far worse; while songs like ‘These Are the Days’, the title track ‘Sugarland’ and the Bon Jovi duet ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’, all present themes relevant to a society living right now in 2021- ‘These Are the Days’ remind us not to forget the days that made us who we are, to never forget the nostalgic moments of yesteryear, and to always be appreciative of our roots and what happened in our lives to get to where we are, while ‘Sugarland’ reminds us that often plans don’t eventuate for the better- we can have everything mapped out, but sometimes life (and God) has other ideas, with the introduction of people, relationships, and the special someone, to make us re-evaluate whether the cost of going out of the town into the big city is worth it. ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’ is a duet between Jennifer Nettles– lead singer of Sugarland, and John Bon Jovi, of Bon Jovi, and the version here on Enjoy the Ride is a country version of Bon Jovi’s actual song on their own album released at that time. A song that encourages us that we can always go home and be with the ones we love, even if we believe that we can’t because of whatever reason we’re told, this is like a ‘prodigal son song’, a reminder that no matter how hard someone strays from their own core ethics, beliefs and values, you can always find love and grace abundantly with your family and the home of your youth!

While Sugarland’s first 2 albums are quite possibly some of the most well-rounded country albums of not only Sugarland’s career, but throughout all 2000s country, Sugarland’s albums post-Enjoy the Ride still impact and challenge, even if for me, I feel Sugarland’s most cohesive works were their two first albums. ‘All I Wanna Do’ from Sugarland’s Love on the Inside, expresses more of a funk/flirty sound of the band as lead singer Jennifer relays that ‘…it’s fun and light-hearted, and it feels like summer. And where ‘Stay’ left off with just a guitar and a vocal, this starts off with just a guitar and a vocal. Obviously it kicks in, so you can move yourself around and dance. But I think it’s sort of a nice juxtaposition, but also it shows a bit of an evolution…I love the flirty sound. We just always want to bring different energies, and we got to play on the lighter side this time…’, which also fits the theme of the song as well, where we see Sugarland express that sometimes days come when all you want to do is just be lazy, to enjoy life, relax and be with the other person. All chores and housework can wait, but sometimes, the moments of spending quality time with the other may not come around as much as we think. ‘It Happens’, a play on words (with the typical phrase of sh** happens being engrained into our conversational psyche), is exactly what ‘sh** happens’ means, a song about describing all of the moments that can go wrong in a certain life, and realising that sometimes, things happen that you can’t control and that life isn’t fair, and that sometimes we can see that God can have a great sense of humour and that what happens in our lives can be seen as a way of levelling us out and equalising the people who are humble with the people who are proud. ‘Joey’, a heartfelt song from Love on the Inside, is perhaps one of the band’s most emotive and poignant, as this track is a reflective ‘Wish You Were Here’ Delta Goodrem-esque melody that shows us listeners of a life gone too soon. With the song being about ‘Joey’, it is unclear whether the song is actually drawn from true experience or not. Nevertheless, the persona in this song is singing to ‘Joey’, who has gone too soon, dying before his time in a car crash. Wishing things could’ve been differently, the persona calls out to ‘joey’, asking him to forgive her, for her lack of help during his time in need, or even for intervention of some sort, that maybe wasn’t given because of…well, dunno. The song is a reminder to always keep our friends and family close, and to always lend and hand and offer service to people we know need it, to people who may find life difficult for whatever reason.

‘Love’, quite possibly the epitome of what Love on the Inside is about, and what the message of Sugarland as a whole is about too, embodies what the band try to sift through, and define love in a 4 minute song. Love takes all shapes and forms, it sacrifices and keeps no record of wrongs, and in and of this very indescribable word, Sugarland try to depict several examples throughout the track, to show us what love can be seen to be, in a practical sense. The emotive and heartfelt lyrics are shown below in verbatim, a reminder that love is the key to bring people together, and that if anything is to come out of our mouths that is not used to build people up and to edify and encourage them on their walk, in life, that what we say and speak, even if we think it’s in love…isn’t:

Is it the face of a child, is it the thrill of danger
Is it the kindness we see in the eyes of a stranger
Is it more than faith, is it more than hope
Is it waiting for us at the end of our rope
I say, it’s love, I say, it’s love
Is it the one you call home, is it the Holy Land
Is it standing right here holding your hand
Is it just like the movies, is it rice and white lace
Is it the feeling I get when I wake to your face
I say, it’s love, I say, it’s love
Is it the first summer storm, is it the colors of fall
Is it having so little and yet having it all
Is it one in a million, is it a chance to belong
Is it standing right here singing this song
I say, it’s love, I say, it’s love
Is it a veil or a cross, is it the poet’s gift
Is it the face that has launched over thousands of ships
Is it making you laugh, is it letting you cry
Is it where we believe that we go when we die
Is it how you were made, is it your mother’s ghost
Is it the wish that I’m wishing for you life, for your life, for your life the most

‘Keep You’ is a song about being numb, about not feeling things at all, and just feeling exhausted by a whole situation in life, where you can’t laugh, cry, feel, can’t run or hide, you’re just there with your numbness in a life where you thought you would’ve gotten out of by now, and is unfortunately a song that people can relate to quite well, especially in 2021 where numbness can be experienced by a lot of people who just look at the news on a daily basis; while ‘Already Gone’ depicts how in certain relationships, some people can leave a relationship emotionally, but still be there physically, and an actual breakup can happen much later after that. ‘Already Gone’ speaks of how sometimes, you can be physically present for a certain thing- be it a relationship or even a career prospect, and your heart and mind can actually be on something else, and you’re just going through the motions, living life and not really confronting the fact that you’re not fully committed to the situation you’re in. ‘Already Gone’ is a great reminder to check our motivations before we ever leap into anything, as both Kristian and Jennifer present a track in 6/8 time, and a country-waltz song that has a swagger to it, but nevertheless has a message of warning, than anything else. ‘Take Me As I Am’, an underrated song on Love on the Inside, speaks about coming to a place in life where you’re comfortable in your own skin, where you come to terms with your identity and being, and know that whatever you present to people, your friends and close family should love you regardless, a notion and understanding that should happen no matter what. ‘Take Me As I Am’ is more about finding your identity, and knowing what you believe and stand for, who you are as a person, and what your deep-seated values as a person are, than asserting who you are on someone else, in a ‘take it or leave it way’. The duo also presents their longest song they’ve recorded, ‘What I’d Give’, here on Love on the Inside, as this romantic track is everything that couples and potential couples are hoping for- an ode to love in its purest form, to care for the other and elevate someone else’s needs above your own.

Sugarland unveiled to the world, their Christmas album Gold and Green in 2009, and while a lot of Christmas albums of today and yesteryear focus a lot on Christmas carols and holiday songs, 5 songs out of the 10 from Sugarland’s Christmas offering are original songs. ‘City Of Silver Dreams’, ‘Coming Home’, ‘Gold and Green’, ‘Maybe Baby (New Years Day)’ and ‘Little Wood Guitar’ are all originally written songs for the Christmas holiday season, and while as a whole, the album by Sugarland unfortunately didn’t really grasp me as I initially thought it would’ve, the songs like ‘City of Silver Dreams’ and ‘Coming Home’ deliver this wonder-feeling that people feel during Christmastime, a gathering of family during a time of celebration of…well, Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth, but I dunno what the rest of the world celebrate. All the original songs from Gold and Green are more festive family songs rather than songs of any religious variety, and that’s fine. But it’s just that once Green and Gold plays through once, I can’t seem to have the urge to relisten the album again, for a while. Nothing against Jennifer or her singing. It’s just that some songs are very much inspired, and others aren’t as captivating. And as much as Sugarland’s previous albums were all on the money, this Christmas album didn’t’ really do it for me…and maybe that’s ok. For whatever reason, the band offered to us a Christmas album that seemed to try a lot harder than was necessary. Nevertheless, Sugarland continued to solder on, providing to us another musical offering of The Incredible Machine in 2010. The result were 11 songs full of lyrical precision, musical ingenuity and enthusiasm that can potentially put other country artists to shame.

‘All We Are’ is by far one of the songs from Sugarland that delivered a punch from the word ‘go’, as Jennifer and Kristian presented this track that had an ethereal build-up and then a one-two country powerful punch of an anthem- ‘All We Are’ is an example of joyous declaration of who we are as a people, a nation, individually and as the world- living together with our differences, but coming together to help our fellow man whenever we can. ‘All We Are’ is a call for us individually to see what we stand for and what we stand against. What we believe we are individually and collectively, and to boldly declare our assertions with grace and sensitivity, knowing that people may not necessarily believe the same as we do. ‘Every Girl Like Me’ draws upon the musical backdrop of reggae-country, where Jennifer herself presents spoken word/sing-song/reggae inspired verses, as she relays to us, the feelings of a persona, an eccentric young woman. As Kristian Bush relays that ‘…I love the picture of what this girl is like because I do believe, much like the narrator believes, that there is a person for every person. There might even be more than one, but I do believe in it. I’m a hopeless and helpless romantic. When that song started to unfold, we got to the bridge of it, and I was referencing dancehall, like hyip-dibi-dibi-dibi, hyip-dibi-dibi-dibi…’ A fun track that even people who aren’t fond of country, can maybe get into, the band also present to us a myriad of other unique musical leanings and themes. ‘The Incredible Machine’ takes us into new Sugarland territory as the band leans on the musical influences of Blondie, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel and The Clash, for source inspiration, as this track presents this theme of the human body being this incredible machine that is yet to be explored for the full potential, but still full of things we know about it as we marvel of what the human body can undertake, just naturally. Standing at 5 minutes, ‘Incredible Machine’ reminds us of how complex we really are, all the while presenting it in a way that doesn’t feel like Sugarland, and maybe that’s ok. ‘Little Miss’ evokes themes of trying to handle everything on your own because you believe you’re strong enough, but at the same time, trying with all your might to not ask for help with situations and circumstances, because you don’t want to appear as ‘weak’, while album ender ‘Shine The Light’, is a song penned by Jennifer Nettles for her duo partner Kristian Bush, and according to Jennifer herself, ‘…’Shine The Light,’ is just a beautiful gospel influenced song that I actually wrote for Kristian. He was going through a tough time in his life, and it was based on a conversation that he and I were having about that. And I had said to him, ‘There are times in our lives and places in our lives that only we can go ourselves. We have to go into those woods ourselves. And hopefully when we get there, as we get closer, we’ll see all the people that we love standing at the edge holding a flashlight to show us the way out.’ And so that was the inspiration for that song, and I hope it’s something that touches people, and that they play it for those who they love who need it…’ A song that can hopefully encourage people who are in the depths of their woods themselves, this piano-only track, is one of the songs that may have easily thrived on Christian radio, if given the chance.

‘Stand Up’, a similarly empowering song that challenges us to press on in tiring circumstances, ‘Stand Up’ encourages people to stand up and ‘use their voice’ to employ change in various situations people seek them. Not necessarily inspired by any event in society over the years, this song nevertheless encourages us to stand up in the big moments but also in the little moments too. As Kristian Bush explains, ‘…there are a lot of messages we put in our songs, and we try to make them honest but subtle. We don’t want to beat you over the head with it, because real life isn’t like that. Real life has meaning in the smallest thing. Like when I dropped off my daughter at her first day at kindergarten, I heard Kenny Chesney’s ‘Don’t Blink’ in the car on the way back. You’re finding that really powerful moment, no matter how small, and making it important in your life. ‘Stand Up’ comes from a long history of activism of the heart. I’ve been really humbled watching people’s reaction to it, because they can write their own script for what they believe in but have not used their voice to say…’ ‘Tonight’, a song that feels more like a pop anthem than a country melody, is a song written by Sugarland, as this song is presented as a way of ‘what would happen if love songs that were written in the 1980s and the 1990s, were given more of a contextualised setting of today (being the early 2010s when ‘Tonight’ was written). Or as presented in Jennifer’s own words, ‘…I love the song ‘Tonight’ on the record. That is definitely the power ballad of the record. That song was inspired. We wanted to write a song – do you remember the movie Say Anything? And you remember Lloyd Dobbler and he’s holding up the boombox outside of Ione Skye’s bedroom and it’s playing ‘In Your Eyes’? And we thought, we want a song that Lloyd Dobbler would play in front of her window now. What would that song be? Or if John Hughes were alive to make a movie now, what song would be on that soundtrack? And so we ended up working on ‘Tonight’ and writing ‘Tonight.’ It was just so fun, even as a singer to perform that song, because it’s in a different part of my range, it allows people to hear a different part of my voice, and it definitely for me was fun to pull on some of my influences, like Chrissie Hynde or even Robert Smith from the Cure, with that sort of ’80s sound. I loved it, and I love that song for it. I think it’s really great…

I think a lot of people found it shocking to say the least, when after a relatively successful album in The Incredible Machine in 2010, Sugarland decided to part ways. At the time, it was assumed that the parting would be permanent. And it was in this parting that both Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles went separate ways. And you know how the saying goes ‘the main vocalist of any band, makes the band?’ Well, I’m sure after the split of Sugarland in 2011, people following Jennifer and her music was much more than Kristian and his endeavours…but then again, what do I know? What I do know is this- after Sugarland’s assumed ‘last’ album in 2010, Jennifer started up her solo career, and it sounds like, well, like Sugarland never split up? Lemme just say that listening to Jennifer’s solo material was a tad different than Sugarland’s- more ballads and much more piano based material than the country prominent Sugarland, and maybe that is a good thing? A distinctive change in genre between Jennifer’s solo material and Sugarland, so that people can decide for themselves to listen to the band, the solo artist, or even both. And while it can take a little time to listen to Jennifer’s music and understand that it is Jennifer’s music and not Sugarland’s, we have nevertheless had the blessing of Jennifer unveiling 3 solo albums post-The Incredible Machine– Jennifer’s first solo album That Girl in 2014, and her follow-up Playing With Fire in 2016, alongside her solo Christmas album To Celebrate Christmas that year as well!

One listen to That Girl, and we can see that this music style is far different from much of Sugarland’s discography- it’s less guitar driven and much more acoustical, even at times just the keyboards and that’s it. There’s still the trademark Jennifer Nettles vocals evident in both her solo material as well as her band’s, but it just seems a little different now- not in a good or bad way, just different. ‘Falling’, the first song on That Girl, speaks about this theme of falling in love with someone, being head over heels for them, and then also knowing that this infatuation/romance will ultimately be short-lived, maybe because of disapproving parents, because of geographical distance, maybe even because of relationship statuses of the people involved in the spontaneity of said ‘falling’ relationship. While the song has an unfortunate ending, we are nevertheless reminded that even if relationships do break up again for whatever reason, we can keep the memory of it in our hearts, as we use such an experience, to draw strength upon, as we hopefully press on to a new longer-lasting relationship into the future. ‘Me Without You’ speaks about the immediate effects of the termination of a relationship, and what can happen to someone’s identity and psyche when the person you have spent your life with, for quite some time, is no longer there. Am I still me without you? This is the question that is asked in this acoustic song, as we remember, that identity shouldn’t be tied to a person, because when relationships go down in flames (and often they do), we need to figure out who we are, without the person. ‘This Angel’ is only filled with acoustics and the rawness of Jennifer’s voice, as the song presents this persona who is longing for an ‘angel’ to come and shake up their core, to bring to them hope, and to dispel the wandering, weariness and waiting that this persona has experienced of late; while ‘This One’s For You’, a song co-written with singer-songwriter/Broadway star Sara Bareilles, is a love song sung by Jennifer to her loved ones, presumedly her husband. Reflective and slow, sensual and heartfelt, this track has a Sara Bareilles stamp all over it, and in a very good way, as we see Jennifer sing in a musical genre that wasn’t explored as much when she’s the lead singer of Sugarland– and that is a good, good thing. ‘Good Time to Cry’ imparts to us this light acoustic melody and an important theme of crying when that is an acceptable way to express overwhelming emotions, and yet, in our lives, we’re told that crying of any kind, is bad, because for some time and so long, we’ve believed that crying makes us ‘weak’. Yet this song is totally the opposite, and in crying, we show people our vulnerabilities, and the courage it can take to be vulnerable in the presence of other people.

‘His Hands’ delves into the unspoken topic of domestic violence, and while the initial feel of the song is that of a romantic relationship being explored, as we move further and deeper into this 4 minute track, we see that this isn’t the case. As Jennifer expounds herself, ‘…I wanted it to have a different subject matter, and I also wanted it to have something that could possibly help people at the same time. So I had come up with this idea for a chorus of ‘His Hands’. I love the moment in the song during the performance when people realize that there’s a twist. Because when you hear the chorus after the first verse, you assume that it’s about an intimate, passionate encounter. And then when you start to hear the second verse, you start to realize, ‘Something else is going on here.’ And by the time you hear the second chorus, you realize ‘This is a completely different ‘his hands on me,’ than I originally thought. I love that moment of discovery whenever that happens in the audience…’ ‘Every Little Thing’ ends the album on a more-jovial note, as this acoustic keyboard-filled 4 minute track, explores the notion that this person who’s committed to a relationship with you, is one that treats you right, respects you, and honours you in whatever you do- and that in light of such a positive impact this person has had on you, you can declare this, that ‘…I can’t sleep, your love’s got me by, yes I’m in too dee, every minute, every hour, I’m just so crazy about every little thing you do….’

The first radio single from Jennifer’s second solo studio album Playing With Fire, ‘Unlove You’ speaks about a relationship that is long gone, but the persona cannot unlove them, for reasons unexplained in the song, but nevertheless, still a song that resonates with people- there are people, be it in a romantic capacity or in a familial one, that we can’t unlove, even if we know that the relationship between us has changed, and our dynamic forever altered. Nevertheless, this indeed is a sad song, but one that people can connect to and use to challenge their own emotions into something that can be done. Jennifer also imparts to us the themes of declaring goodbye to ‘heartbreak’ and ‘loneliness’, putting into the past these things that don’t us, in the song ‘Hey Heartbreak’, as we long to move onto brighter days and to embrace better opportunities for us in both relationships and a sense of purpose moving forward; while ‘Drunk in Heels’ delivers a tongue-in-cheek track about how women, after working a 9 to 5, are also expected to provide on the home-front as well. While there seems to be more of a shift in recent times of house husbands, the reality is this- that women are just expected to do all the work, which is totally inconsiderate. Such a song as this is a reminder that women do indeed feel pressure of performance, and hopefully this song allows us men to maybe change our ways if necessary, to allow a more level playing field when it comes to work in the home. ‘Chaser’ imparts this theme of not wanting to be someone’s ‘seconds’- longing to be appreciated and loved as ‘first-prize’, rather than a consolation one, in a relationship setting; while ‘Starting Over’ shows us, the getting-over-a-breakup/relationship and how that is metaphorically similar to getting over an addiction- be it to drugs or alcohol.

‘Salvation Works’ delves into this issue of salvation for people and what it entails…in layman’s terms and what it means to us to believe in salvation and how we ought to act if we believe salvation is a gift to us and not something we all have to earn and to perform to obtain; while ‘Way Back Home’ is a two-fold song- a song that is very much about becoming a mother, and coming full circle for Jennifer and realising things about motherhood that weren’t necessarily understood when she observed her own mother, while it also can be about coming home from a time away from family and friends, living life so flippantly and hedonistic on your own, and coming to terms with how much you need the fabric of home in your life, that you’re willing to go back home in a humble capacity…sort of like the story of the Prodigal Son in the Bible. The album then ends with the unique collaboration of both Jennifer Nettles and Jennifer Lopez for the song ‘My House’, and how that song explains about even though people are brought up differently and live on different sides of the country and experiencing different sets of circumstances, we are all similar in the way that we all have the same hopes, dreams, losses, hurts, loves, and desires, as the song reminds us all that ‘…my house is your house, same dirty laundry, same dirty dishes, my house is your house, air it all out and sort all the issues, I love to sing, I love to dance, we’re making memories, we’re making plans, with the same prayers, same hurt, same love, same work, the places we come from may feel so distant, but we’re really not that different…’

It was in 2017 where people saw what was initially thought to have been impossible- Sugarland was reuniting. Yes, after Jennifer’s 2 solo albums (and 1 Christmas album), Sugarland came together again to work on a new album, and what resulted from all this, was the song ‘Still the Same’, and the 2018 album Bigger. While it is now known in 2021, that Jennifer herself is concurrently recording music in a solo capacity as well as being in the band Sugarland, it was not known, while all this was happening, that Sugarland was coming back, and that Jennifer was going to be doing both Sugarland and her solo stuff at the same time. And nevertheless, here we are in 2021, and what a great comeback album Bigger actually is. ‘Still the Same’ is a for-the-fans song, declaring that they are still the same band as before, that their love- for music, for the fans, is still the same now as it was back then. A joyful song that celebrates the past as well as looking towards the future, and assuring people that the band Sugarland is still the same band- with all of its poignancy and heart, as previously; ‘Still the Same’ sets off other songs that have managed to remind us of the necessity of a band like this in a society like today. Songs like ‘Bigger’ and ‘On A Roll’ are both rousing declaratory pieces, about rising above adversity and believing that we were born for greater things than what we are currently in (‘Bigger’), alongside this disco-country joyous melody ‘On a Roll’, that has rap elements and showcases Jennifer’s very own rapping skills, as the song reminds us that we are all on a roll towards something in life. ‘Mother’, an eloquent acoustic country song about mothers, is a song much more than that as Sugarland present this song about mothers and mothers having unconditional love for their children, something that we all should abide in and long for ourselves. Mothers care for us like no other human would; and gives us hope and grace when the world often retracts it from us. ‘Mother’ in a way, showcases how God loves us all abundantly and without condition, and reminds people of how the love given to us by our mothers (and God as well), ought to be the love that we give away and share to the people in our own lives as well. ‘Lean it On Back’, a groovy track about taking in life and enjoying the small moments for what they are, is yet another standout track on the album, as is also ‘Love Me Like I’m Leaving’, a classic country relationship-problem song about a persona who exposes the reasons why someone loves them- because they’re afraid of losing them, and no other reason entirely.

‘Tuesday’s Broken’ is a realistic and poignant look at tragedies around the world, and to honestly present this sympathetic reflection about the hurt these people may have felt during these various circumstances, and by not necessarily being preachy, the song depicts the fact of why something can happen to someone so tragic and quick that on one day they were hoping and dreaming of the future, and the next, everything was broken, and nothing was the same ever again. But the highlight of the album, in every facet of the word, was in fact the Sugarland-Taylor Swift collaboration in the song ‘Babe’, a song that Sugarland did not write themselves, that was in fact a cover that Taylor herself wrote, initially for her 2012 album RED but in actuality, didn’t fit for whatever reason, and now Sugarland are placing their own spin on it, for their 2018 album Bigger. The song itself is a doozy- the persona in the song finds out their significant other is cheating, and in the song, declares that ‘…this is the last time, you’ll ever call me babe…’ A song that has been brought to life after years of being on the shelf, Taylor Swift (and Pat Monahan, lead singer of the band Train, and fellow writer of ‘Babe’) has given Sugarland fans, and listeners in general, a song that is just as much of a country bop as it is a heartfelt and compelling song about breakups and how messy breakups, like in ‘Babe’, ought to be avoided in real life, hopefully at all costs.

But in all honesty, the songs that have been the most prolific and impactful for anyone who is a Sugarland fan, are the songs ‘Stay’ and ‘Stuck Like Glue’- music videos for these songs, that have exceeded every other in terms of view count, and songs that have challenged us all to what is really classified as country music. ‘Stay’ was from the 2006 album Enjoy the Ride; and is by far one of the most emotive songs Sugarland has ever created. Inspired by Reba McEntire’s song ‘Whoever’s in New England’ (in that song, the perspective of the track is from the wife whose husband is cheating on her), ‘Stay’ is actually from the other woman’s POV, and shows the other side to the cheating, what the other woman could think and say in light of adultery and cheating on a very big scale. I don’t think any song has been created from the POV of the ‘other woman’, and so this song ‘Stay’ is very much important and needed, so to give another way of seeing an already bad situation. ‘Stuck Like Glue’, the second most viewed music video from the band, is present on 2010’s The Incredible Machine, and on the surface, it’s a song about love in its purest form, and about two people in love together and declaring that they are stuck together like glue, because of their undying love for each other. And yet once we view the music video, we see a storyline play out that is vastly different compared to what we’ve all thought about in our heads. The music video portray Jennifer as a crazed individual who is obsessed with her ex-husband/boyfriend (played in the video by Ryan McPartlin, an actor most known for his role as Devon Woodcomb in the NBC series, Chuck), and kidnaps him outside his house, whisking him away to an abandoned, creepy warehouse, and there, declaring her love for him. A song that challenges us all to really see what our motivations for love can be; both ‘Stay’ and ‘Stuck Like Glue’ remind us that country music doesn’t always have to be conventional, for it to be good.

And so here we are. In 2021, after the release of Sugarland’s Bigger in 2018, an album that I reckon, in listening to it, quite possibly one of the most underrated country-esque albums I’ve heard in recent memory. We’ve seen Jennifer deliver to us, another EP after her 2016 studio album Playing With Fire. I Can Do Hard Things EP released digitally in 2019, comprising of 5 tracks (6 if you include 2 versions of the title track) of songs similar in style and akin to Jennifer’s first album in 2014. The content of the EP? There’s the title track, a powerful ballad about women overcoming adversity, and is Jennifer’s own personal empowerment song that reminds us all, that we all can do hard things in life, not just women, and that this song, originally for women, can also be impactful to a variety of people, myself included. ‘Just My Record Player’ shows us all of the power of music, and how music in the sense of listening to something on the ‘record player’, can dispel the worries and fears we all may have conjured up within ourselves, while ‘King of the City’, acoustic and heartfelt, was based upon the true story of the death of a window-washer on 9/11 way back in the day. As Jennifer emotively conveys to us, ‘…I want to humanize the immigrant story as an American story, and allow people a different narrative from what they might be seeing on the news or in their communities…’ Apart from her most recent 2019 EP, Jennifer (and also Sugarland) unveiled to us various other singles and side-projects, collaborations and other artistic endeavours, as a reminder that more often than not, it is the song that is not attached to any album, or the extra acting credit or just the activity that doesn’t necessarily ‘fit’ anywhere, that challenges us all the more.

In 2015, Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Nettles collaborated on the song ‘You Will’, that served as the theme song to Oprah Winfrey’s OWN TV network- written by songwriter Diane Warren (who also wrote other songs like ‘Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’, ‘There You’ll Be’, ‘Because You Loved Me’, ‘I Will Be Here For You’, ‘How Do I Live’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ and ‘I’m Standing With You’); ‘You Will’ served its purpose as being an uplifting anthem where we understand and realise that sometimes our change in outlook is all that’s needed to move from an ‘I Won’t’ to an ‘I Will’. Jennifer also collaborated recently with Bon Jovi in 2020, on a song called ‘Do What You Can’, inspired by the global pandemic and the effects it has had on communities and the local precinct of people who have been suffering from this virus first-hand, since early last year; while Jennifer’s vocals were also heard in the songs ’99 Years’ and ‘Christmas Day’, duets with Josh Groban and Michael W. Smith respectively. ’99 Years’ is a song of looking back with pride on a life well lived with your significant other by your side, and being in a state of appreciation and adoration for this person you’ve spent your life with, while ‘Christmas Day’ is a re-recording of an already powerful duet (Michael W. Smith and Mandisa), this time Jennifer providing Mandisa’s vocals and delivering a song that reminds us of the importance of Christmas, the holiday, and Christmas, the day itself. Jennifer also lent her vocals to the collaboration she had with Lionel Richie for his re-recording of his famous hit ‘Hello’, adding a greater layer of depth as we see such a song be translated from the 1970s to 2012 (when the re-recording was made) with such grace and poise; while the biggest surprise of all of Jennifer’s collaborations, would have to be the welcomed acoustic mix of ‘All of Me’, that features John Legend the original artist, as well as Jennifer Nettles and Hunter Hayes. This unique version of blending together country and soul has actually paid off- I’m loving this rendition far better than the original song. Sugarland the band also had collaborations over the years as well, most notably songs like ‘Run’ (featuring original artist Matt Nathanson), ‘Life in a Northern Town’ (featuring Little Big Town, and a cover of the original 1980s track by the British group, Dream Academy) and ‘Guide You Home’, a song from the soundtrack for the 2012 action movie Act of Valor; and while I’ve been more connected to Jennifer Nettles collaborations compared to Sugarland’s, what these standalone songs have reminded us, is that sometimes looking for songs outside of the original albums/EPs, is well worth it, especially for songs like ‘You Will’, ‘Life in a Northern Town’, ’99 Years’ and ‘Hello’, to name a few.

Jennifer has also lent herself with her acting skills to the movies Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colours and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colours: Circle of Love, dramatizations of the early life of Dolly Parton herself, where Jennifer plays the role of Dolly’s mother in both the movies. While I may not have seen these films, I do have much respect for Dolly as an artist, and maybe, I’ll give these two movies a spin in the future. Jennifer also appeared in a small-ish, yet pivotal main-cast role as Aimee-Leigh Gemstone, the deceased matriarch of a fictional Southern-Baptist evangelical family in the HBO comedy spoof, The Righteous Gemstones– and that is also a show that I may watch in the future. The premise of it, as offending as it can be for some fundamentalist Christian far-right groups, has nevertheless tried the shed the light on some of the dangers surrounding megachurches, and the dark side of what it could be like for these churches to operate on a global scale, and what it could be, behind closed doors. Nevertheless, what these roles have shown of Jennifer and Sugarland, is to not necessarily paint with big brushstrokes and generalise, fit people in a box, assume that once a singer-songwriter, always a singer songwriter, that once a country group, always one. That isn’t always the case. Which is what is actually inspirational about Jennifer Nettles, Sugarland and the rest of it. Yes, in a broad term, this band is a country band. But not in the country that we are used to seeing right now. It’s country but it’s also reggae, and pop, and rock, and other genres too. Jennifer has managed to distance herself a little from the country-style of her band; and has adopted more of a piano-based jazz-y atmosphere, or even more of a radio-friendly pop sound. And that’s ok. For the influential artists, can cross over genres, and the delivery of the songs are still on par. Sugarland and their coming-back-from-hiatus is nothing more than a unique way of saying ‘we’re not done yet’…and they’re not. Songs like ‘Bigger’, ‘Still the Same’, ‘Mother’, ‘Tuesday’s Broken’, ‘Babe’ and ‘On a Roll’ are evidence of this.

If nothing else from this blog, be reminded of this- that country music is a misunderstood genre; but is nevertheless a genre of music that is very much important to the fabric of music as a whole. Yes, I’ve discussed plenty of country artists thus far, and there’s still more coming (Taylor Swift, The Chicks and Tim McGraw), but in the meantime, we are blessed to hear quality artists with such a heart for music to be created that touches the soul- from artists like Keith Urban, Shania Twain, Little Big Town and Lady A, to Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride and Rascal Flatts. Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles’ solo career have both caught me by surprise in the very best possible way. And now moving forward, what better way to be anticipated about the new year, are not one, but 2 solo albums from Jennifer during the year, as well as another Sugarland album as well? Why not. So between now and when there’s new music, in both band and solo-artist format, let us be reminded of how artists in their own ways, can creep up on you when you least expect it, reminding us all on a constant basis, that influence and popularity need not go, hand in hand. And if you’re still craving more things Jennifer (and/or Sugarland), before these albums release later on during the year, then look no further than the new competition show GO-BIG SHOW– a talent competition that is anything but singing and dancing. A unique concept, that features a judging panel comprising of Rosario Dawson, Snoop Dogg and Cody Rhodes; GO-BIG SHOW is a great reminder that sometimes to succeed in life, you have to go outside the box and amaze people, far beyond what could be imaginable. Sugarland the band, and Jennifer Nettles, the solo artist, have both reminded me of the uniqueness of country music, and that sometimes it is the unique and different, that challenges the status quo the most.

Does Sugarland and their music make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song, like ‘Stuck Like Glue’, ‘Stay’, ‘Something More’, or ‘Baby Girl’; that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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