Kristian Bush calls it a "victory lap." In early 2010, he and Jennifer Nettles, his partner in the platinum-selling Sugarland, hit the road to preview songs from The Incredible Machine, an album that wouldn't be released for many months. Now, the duo's back out on the road playing a lot of the same material.
"The excitement of a rock show," says the hitmaker, "can happen two ways — playing songs you don't know or, 'Oh, my gosh, I know all these songs!' Last year was the first, this year is the second."
Touring an album before it's released is a throwback to the '60s and '70s, when bands were constantly road-testing new material. And in this case, the songs passed with flying colors: "Even when people haven't heard it, the songs are pretty anthemic and easy to connect with. They were written to be played in arenas, auditoriums and amphitheaters.
"Our job is to communicate with as many people as we can," Bush continues. "In order to communicate through those great big speakers at the top of the room, you have to be conscious of what you are doing. It's a little more about simplicity, which is harder than you think."
While at this point it's difficult to think of Sugarland not being a success, Bush says it took a while to figure out how to make records that connect with an audience, ones that fill up arenas but still work musically. He learned from producer Hugh Padgham, who's worked with the likes of The Police, Phil Collins and Elton John, and from trial and error in the studio.
But those who caught last year's version of The Incredible Machine tour won't have to worry about getting a note-for-note repeat this time out.
"The set and staging haven't changed, but the set list has shifted around a great deal," says the artist. "We played about half the record last year. We're playing most of the record this year."
Of the 20-song repertoire, just over a third come from The Incredible Machine, three of which — "Stuck Like Glue," "Little Miss" and "Tonight" — have already been hits. They join another dozen Sugarland songs that have made the country Top 20, five them reaching No. 1.
Together less than a decade, Sugarland has evolved into one of the top country groups. Bush and Nettles have taken the place of The Judds and Brooks and Dunn in picking up Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music "Best Vocal Duo" awards year after year. Originally a trio with Kristen Hall, who left in 2005, the Atlanta act has sold more than 9 million albums, with another 5 million digital downloads, making it one of the best-selling recording artists of the 2000s, regardless of genre.
Like Shania Twain before them, the two musicians have been taken to task for their crossover success. Bush acknowledges that The Incredible Machine includes rock elements, but says that genre categories don't really mean much to him.
"A lot of that is institutional, it's how the industry works," he reckons. "But it's country music. The beautiful thing about the genre is it contains so many colors."
Editor's note: The preceding interview was conducted weeks before the Indiana stage collapse tragedy of this past weekend. At press time, the Denver show was still scheduled to take place.