Many picnic baskets and backyard barbecues are packing a bit of the Sugarland legacy.
Kristian Bush’s great-grandfather founded the company that makes Bush’s Baked Beans — but the sweet and savory staple isn’t served at every Bush family gathering. Kristian had his fill growing up, he said with a laugh by phone from his home in Atlanta.
“At some point, Jennifer (Nettles) and I were on Oprah. We knew she doesn’t pre-rehearse her conversations with you. Funny enough, that was the one question she asked me,” he said. “Bush’s Baked Beans. I was prepared for anything, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ You want to know the truth? I don’t really like them, because I was around them so much.”
Fortunately for the family business, plenty of other people like them.
Plenty of people like Sugarland, as well. The country duo of lead singer Jennifer Nettles and Bush on vocals, guitar and mandolin dates back to 2003. After nearly a decade together and 18 industry awards, including two Grammys in 2009 for “Stay,” they decided not to stay together. Instead, they pursued solo projects after Nettles went on maternity leave in 2012.
Bush learned a lot about himself during their time apart.
“I certainly learned the skill of how to manage dramatic amounts of output,” he said. “I used to write 12, 14 songs a year, and as soon as we parked the bus, it was like 150 songs a year. It was disconcerting, and I had to learn how to navigate that, and how to value and focus and allow yourself as a creative person to just do it.
“I learned a lot as a performer,” he added. “A lot of country got to discover me as a singer, which is kind of interesting. They’d look at me like, ‘I know you, and I don’t know what you sound like when you open your mouth.’ So it was a beautiful journey into watching people — into being a new artist but having all the experience.”
He and Nettles reunited in 2017, and are on the road with their new album, “Bigger,” rolling into the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Friday night (8/17) with their “Still the Same” tour.
“We were both super busy, and Jennifer’s like, ‘Hey, you want to try this?’ I said, ‘Sure, we ought to write a song.’ Then everybody got all excited around us,” he said. “As soon as we wrote ‘Bigger,’ we kind of stared at each other, and were like, ‘Huh, really. That’s what we’re supposed to do?’ As we kept writing the songs, they kept having more messages in them, and we were like, ‘Oh, we really didn’t have a choice. We were supposed to do this. OK, here’s where we go.’
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“That’s the whole reason it’s called ‘Bigger,’” he said, “because it’s bigger than us. It’s not us, it’s not about us. The band was never about us anyway — we don’t even have our picture on the cover.”
The new collection of 11 songs, released June 8, is a very personal look at the world around them.
“Music has a way of processing pain and turning it into something,” he said, “and this album is very Sugarland. It tries to turn the pain around us into some hope, in my opinion. The point of view, to some degree, is the two of us looking outside the window, trying to explain to our kids what’s out there. And maybe trying to talk to ourselves and comfort ourselves, whether it’s to dance or to sing or whatever it takes.
“If the metaphor is that you’re suddenly in the water of the world around you, my wish for you is that ‘Bigger’ works like a float or a life preserver, so that you don’t have to keep treading water so much. Just hold onto this record for a little bit, let your legs rest, let your heart simmer down — you’re gonna have to go back in it in a minute anyway.
“Let us do the thing that we were born to do, which is give you some songs that are gonna give you some relief.”
The Tennessee native’s talent emerged early on, when he picked up a violin at age 4. By the time he was 7 and his brother, Brandon, was about 4, they were opening for Dolly Parton at the Bush Beans Jamboree. Even at that young age, he said it “seemed like she was a big deal.”
The brothers studied violin under the Suzuki method before Kristian branched out to guitar and Brandon turned to keyboards, eventually hooking up with Train from 2003 to 2006. After that, he began recording and touring with Sugarland and writing with his big brother.
“We work really well together,” Kristian said. “He’s more talented than I’ll ever be.”
WHAT: Sugarland with openers Frankie Ballard and Lindsay Ell
WHERE: Iowa State Fair Grandstand, 3000 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday (8/17)
TICKETS: $52 to $67, 1-(800) 514-3849 or Iowastatefair.org/entertainment/grandstand/
GATE ADMISSION: $12 ages 12 and over, $6 ages 6 to 11, free ages 5 and under; at the gate or Iowastatefair.org/visit/buy-tickets/
FREE ENTERTAINMENT: Daily lineups at Iowastatefair.org/entertainment/free-entertainment/