It would be a fair assumption – though they would never be so brash to say it out loud – that Sugarland might be thinking "we told you so" throughout their Still The Same Tour. Six years ago, when Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush announced that they were going to take a break and pursue solo projects, they always said the door was open for them to come together again. However, many in the industry thought that was just hyperbole coming from the computer of a publicist. Now, the CMA Award-winning duo is back with a new album (Bigger), a top 10 single ("Babe"), and a tour that has been drawing rave reviews since they kicked it off in May. As much as a rift between the two would make for a tantalizing story, Nettles tells Billboard that never was the case.
"We always said that door was open, but the media loves a scandalous spin," she said backstage at their July 28 show in Louisville. "I think they've been so accustomed to when people do solo work that they never work together again because they have had a falling out. Neither of those things were the case with us."
With the duo back together on stage, Bush asserts that there are some differences between this tour and the ones before it – the duo has learned to enjoy the flow of the show. "I think that there's a certain amount of relaxation about our performance. I remember always being in complete panic thinking that we always had to get to the next song. At first, you only have twenty minutes in front of another act. Then suddenly you have thirty-five minutes, and then you're the headliner, right? So, you're so concerned about making sure that everything works like clockwork. Now, I feel it's happening with so much more confidence. We're not pushing it so hard."
Some aspects of their show make the duo feel like they are taking to the stage together for the first time, Bush asserts. "While I think we are more relaxed, a good part of our set is new songs. When you go play new songs to a crowd, we take it personally -- it's our first show and we're a new band."
The duo has been working the material from Bigger in their set list since they began their tour, but now that the album is out, Nettles says she notices a difference.
"It's been fun to also see that evolution from the album not being out, and now they've had it for about six weeks, they've had a chance to sit with it a while. To hear people singing along and to watch the ones that they really gravitate towards has really been rewarding."
To cite an example of an impact that the new music is making, Nettles chose "Lean It On Back," which takes on a different feel live than it does on record.
"I think that one is an ear worm on the album - meaning it's very hooky - but when it's performed, you can see the connection to it in a different way than I think you might feel if you just listen to it for the first time on the album. It's a good song, but you never truly know how it is going to connect with a listener until you put it in front of a group of people and see how that translates live."
Another highlight from the show – although for a much different reason -- is "Bird In A Cage," of which Nettles says is "the most obtuse of the album. I think that it's the farthest reaching on the album in terms of both lyric and music, and from a live standpoint, it's got the most production on it in our set. There's a lot of theater when we perform that song live, because you want to be able to grab the listener in and keep them there."
Opening acts such as Brandy Clark, Frankie Ballard, Clare Bowen and Lindsay Ell have kept a buzz going throughout the tour, and there's no offense taken if the opening act forces them to raise their game. In fact, Bush encourages them to do just that.
"We learned this a long time ago from Kenny Chesney. If there was a conversation about what we could or couldn't use - like speakers or lights, he would say 'Use everything. Blow me off the stage.' I have always remembered that, so it's what I tell these guys. Do your best show, blow it up. Shame us, you know? I love it."
In fact, Bush listens very intently to their opening acts – with vested interest in one's set list. "I happen to know Lindsay's stuff intimately because I produced it. I'm totally interested in listening to what she's changed because I know exactly how I meant it to be there, but only for the album. Much like Jennifer and I change stuff for performance, she does the same."
He's also a fan of Ballard. "I'm always thrilled to be working with Frankie, because he and I have just started writing music together. He's playing a couple of the songs we wrote, but they're not on records right now, and they're very entertainment driven, they're very Elvis-y, so it's interesting to see the crowd's reaction to them."
Nettles stands in total agreement with Bush on what their opening acts bring to the tour – adding that she is very familiar with what Clark brings to the lineup. "I had taken her out on my That Girl and Playing With Fire tours. She's such a fantastic songwriter, and she speaks to everyday people in such a beautiful way."
The tour also is providing a unique experience for fans who might know their solo work from the past six years, but have never experienced Sugarland live. "We get a lot of feedback too from our meet and greets, people who say 'I've seen you solo, and I've seen you solo, but this is my first time to see you together,'" said Nettles. "Then, there's people who just saw us as Sugarland and never saw our solo stuff." The duo keeps that in mind, with Bush's "Trailer Hitch" and Nettles' "Unlove You" being part of the set list. She says it's important to give the audience the total picture of who they are musically.
"We play a couple of our solo songs in the set because we want to not only pay respect to the work that we do - to remind the fans that number one, we haven't been anywhere. Number two - if you love us you can love us in a lot of way. Number three, this is what we've been doing if you haven't known."
One difference between 2018 and 2005, when they first launched, is the fact that their children can influence their daily schedules.
"I don't have Magnus out," says Nettles of her son. "So I got up around nine and I had administrative time on the bus for a couple of hours. I came in and did yoga around 11:30. Then I went to lunch with my friend Melissa. I hadn't seen her for a while, so we visited for a little bit. I took a shower, then went out to get coffee. It was good to get out and get a little sunshine," she says.
Bush, however, had his kids with him for the Louisville show. "This is their last week before school, so they're having their last moments of how to do nothing," he says with a smile. "My daughter slept until about one, but my son got up pretty early, and he's now been drinking coffee with me, which is different." The day also saw some work away from the stage for Bush. "I started working on a bunch of stuff with Lindsay, because she's gotta start pre-planning her album. Then we did soundcheck, and we rehearsed. Give or take, morning is work, afternoon is -- depending on what verb you wanna use -- I'd like to call it play. We play music."