Gimme me some Sugarland

Three local musicians make bid for the major label big time

"I was trying to keep my cool," says Sugarland guitarist-singer/songwriter Kristen Hall, describing her band's recent debut at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The wildly popular Atlanta-based country band, featuring Hall along with lead singer Jennifer Nettles and guitarist Kristian Bush, is in the middle of a massive promo campaign to launch its major-label debut Twice the Speed of Life.

"They have this circle in the middle of the stage at the new Opry," she continues. "It's the old wood from the original center stage. You're standing in the circle and you're thinking about Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, you know. I was keeping it together till they introduced us and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, you never forget your first time at the Grand Ole Opry.' It was surreal."

The band was on the long-running Opry show to promote its album. It's another milestone for the group that was birthed by the acoustic folk scene of Eddie's Attic.

Before Sugarland, each member had achieved some success on their own. Hall's intimate solo recordings and charismatic live shows have amassed a considerable fanbase since the late '80s. Nettles performed first with Soul Miner's Daughter, then later with the Jennifer Nettles Band, frequently selling out the Variety Playhouse and the 40 Watt. Bush has been in the spotlight, too, both with his own solo outings and as half of Billy Pilgrim.

Nevertheless, as Sugarland, the three are on the verge of their biggest success. Signed a little over a year ago to Mercury Records, the group has been in non-stop work mode since the October release of Speed. But not everyone is happy with their move from underground to major label.

"I've had a few people go down the 'So, you've sold your soul' kinda route when they've talked to us," Hall says. "But you know what? I want to be a musician forever and I can't do that unless I jump in whole-heartedly and really achieve something."

Here are bands that had huge hit songs and now they're working at farms and driving tractors. But I really want to be a musician. It's the only thing I feel qualified for. So to secure my life, I had to dive in and give it the old heave-ho," she pauses and adds, laughing, "and it was in the nick of time, quite frankly."

Hall was calling from a hotel in Colorado with a lush mountain-view room. "It's all snowy and beautiful and bright, so I'm excited," she says. But the musicians know that every day isn't about sitting on top of the mountain of success, being pampered.

"The Opry was great, but don't think for a minute that every other day isn't full of humility," she laughs. "That's the nature of the beast. One day you're getting a standing ovation in an arena and the next night you're playing some smoky bar where people keep asking you to play 'Freebird.'"

A day in the life of Sugarland generally begins at 6 a.m., to be awake for early-morning radio interviews. Then they catch an 8 o'clock flight. They go straight to another radio station from the airport, and have lunch after the interview. In the afternoon, it's off to yet another radio station, dinner and then they finally perform a concert that same evening. "Then," she says, "we get up and do it all over again."

Hall admits the schedule wasn't easy to adapt to. "I had essentially been living the life of a retired person," she says. "I prided myself to know that for 15 years I never woke up to an alarm clock."

But she says the sacrifice is worth it. "It feels like I had a baby and her name is Sugarland," she chuckles. "My time is no longer my own, but that's OK because I really wanted this."