Two of the smartest people in the music industry reside in Sugarland. Not the town, but the group, consisting of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. Sugarland has built their career breaking down the boundaries of country music and just last week they announced an upcoming performance with Rihanna at the ACMs. Yes, Rihanna. Yes, at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Most country music acts wouldn’t even entertain the idea of collaborating with an R&B/pop artist whose current single is titled “S&M.” But in Sugarland, the rules have always been a little different.
Sugarland has always flirted with other genres of music. Whether it was collaborating with Bon Jovi on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” or Beyoncé on “Irreplaceable,” Sugarland has expanded its fan base without completely alienating country music fans. They’ve even been known to cover “…Baby One More Time” and “Party In the U.S.A.” on tour. Their cover of “Like a Prayer” (with Little Big Town) has even gone viral, with Perez posting it just last week. This is something most country artists wouldn’t even attempt. It may be because they’re “purists” or because they’d fail at it. Sugarland’s never taken themselves too seriously and their live show has always been about having fun. This allows them to try different things without totally pissing off the ever-fickle country music audience.
There’s no doubt in my mind their performance at ACMs with Rihanna will be a hit on the net and introduce them to a whole new demographic. Sugarland’s built their fan base by collaborating with other popular artists from many different genres and that can be seen at their shows. At every Sugarland show I’ve been to, I’ve seen at least one fan wearing a Bon Jovi t-shirt (even though most of the time it’s my mom). That’s why Sugarland has been headlining successful tours since their second album, while a slew of country acts are stuck opening up for the Taylor’s and Carrie’s.
While all this is great, Sugarland does have to be careful about straying too far from their country roots. “Stuck Like Glue” was a #1 hit, but “The Incredible Machine” hasn’t been one of their best sellers. Unless they’re looking to crossover (which, for whatever reason, they haven’t yet actively pursued) the album doesn’t really appeal to any audience in particular. The most country thing about the album is Nettles’ voice. I appreciate that they like to do different things sonically, but what would make them really special is the ability to merge the country storytelling of their earlier work with the pop/rock instrumentation of their new album. That’s what I’m hoping to hear on their next album and that’s what could keep Sugarland in the good graces of country music, while really bringing them to the next level of crossover success.