What Kristian Bush remembers from playing The Grey Eagle 10 years ago was that the green room was so cold, his mandolin kept going out of tune. He’d started playing mandolin because there were two other guitarists in the band — a then little-known project called Sugarland.
Bush’s Wednesday, Jan. 29, revisiting of that (now heated) listening room will be, he says, “the closest venue I’ll come to playing where I grew up” in Knoxville, Tenn. It’s also part of his solo tour, a return to his roots as a singer-songwriter.
Before Sugarland found major success as a Grammy-winning country duo, Bush fronted folk-rock act Billy Pilgrim. He was part of the ’90s-era Atlanta singer-songwriter scene that spawned Indigo Girls, Michelle Malone and Shawn Mullins, among others. Bush came to Georgia as a student at Emory University, in “the first class to graduate with a creative writing major,” he says.
“Atlanta didn’t have a subculture for budding literary kids, so we were left to our own devices,” he remembers. “So I was listening to Indigo Girls and The Black Crowes performing songs they’d written that week. They were taking it seriously.” He says that the first Billy Pilgrim album contained six songs originally written as poems under the guidance of his thesis advisor.
While many country acts perform music that is written for them, Bush continued to create original music, in collaboration with bandmate Jennifer Nettles, for Sugarland. In 2011, he founded Atlanta-based music publisher Songs of the Architect with his brother, Brandon Bush (keyboardist for Train) and Tom Tapley (producer/engineer for Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen).
The writing impetus has not slowed: “Where I would normally write 20 or 25 songs a year, in the last couple of years, it’s been upwards of 150 or 160 songs,” says Bush. “It’s a scary thing when you’re the person it’s happening to. I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m holding on for dear life.” Because he has access to a studio and a community of musicians, he records those songs as he writes them. That means a solo album is imminent, he says. That’s largely due to his massive backlog of material, but also because the single, “Love or Money,” has already been released.
“I ended up on tour in Europe and started playing it, because you’re always in love with the most recent song you wrote,” Bush says. That was last spring, and he played the song both in concert and on promotional radio shows. When he opened the Country to Country Festival at London’s O2 Arena, he was surprised by the response to that particular tune. Especially in a place where, he says, “It’s been a mystery for a long time why you can’t really translate commercial country music overseas without it having some sort of pop angle to it, or a roots-bluegrass angle to it.” To maintain the momentum, he gave away a free download of “Love or Money” to every C2C ticket holder.
His record label in Europe (which he didn’t consult before the giveaway) was taken aback, but Bush sees the humor: “I joke that with all of my obsession with ’80s British invasion music, I ended up with the first country import,” he says. He also gets the wisdom of tempering commercial country with pop savvy — a current trend across the genre that’s served Sugarland well.
In fact, Bush sees that band as a sort of doorman to the present wave of songwriters pushing the country music listenership in new directions. “Country is the genre that can hold Allison Krauss and Colt Ford,” he says. “I think pop in country is fine. I think rock in country is fine. I think whatever you want to put in it, as long as it’s good, is a fine decision.”
who: Kristian Bush with Hannah Thomas
where: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
when: Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 8 p.m.
$20 advance / $25 day of show