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Jennifer Nettles on Country's Gender Imbalance and Supporting Hillary Clinton

Nettles photographed April 20 in New York.
Jean-Francois Campos

Jennifer Nettles photographed April 20, 2016 in New York.

Jennifer Nettles has one of those singing voices that cuts through speakers. So it makes sense that when the country star talks about her craft, the metaphors quickly turn, well, sharp. "I love being able to work with a fine ­dentist's tool as a singer in terms of nuance. I appreciate that as much as I do taking out my big sword." She laughs. "And don't get me wrong: I love taking out the big sword. The big sword is absolutely jubilant and victorious."

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No one who has heard Nettles at full volume would doubt the power of her instrument. You can hear it all over her new album, Playing With Fire, out May 13 on Big Machine. The album's 11 songs move from the hopped-up sass of the title track ("Here's the way the world sits to me/Good girls rarely make ­history") to bruising power ballads (the lead single "Unlove You") to "Drunk in Heels," which features a string of feminist punchlines. All of the songs find Nettles in peak vocal form, a burly, blues-tinged tone she links to Douglas, the small, South Central Georgia city where she was born and raised. "It's in my terroir, as we say," she says. "All of the rich heritage of music from that part of our country -- gospel, R&B, blues, country -- I can't get out of it. It's in my blood. I'm from the swamp of southern Georgia."

At the moment, Nettles, 41, is sitting a stone's throw from another swamp of sorts -- the Hudson River. She's in a vast photography studio on the western edge of Manhattan. Just outside the room where Nettles is sprawled on a couch, a couple of dozen models, male and female, are loitering in a lounge area awaiting a shoot, primped and swathed in couture. Nettles is dressed fashionably herself, but in a more rough-and-ready mode: bobbed hair, denim jumpsuit, sneakers. "You can't even believe how comfortable this is," she tells a friend who asks about the jumpsuit. "Like pajamas."

The look suits Nettles, splitting the difference between down-home and fashionista, earthy and regal. It's that combination, along with her powerhouse voice, that has made Nettles one of 21st-century country's most compelling stars. The résumé is impressive: Jon Bon Jovi's duet partner on the No. 1 country smash "Who Says You Can't Go Home," chart-topping solo artist and, more recently, Broadway sensation in an acclaimed ­limited-run star turn in Chicago. Of course, she made her name, and had her biggest success, as frontwoman of prolific hitmaking duo Sugarland, whose radio-ready mix of twang and '70s AM rock crunch was inescapable in the mid- and late-2000s. Nettles and her Sugarland partner Kristian Bush went on hiatus in 2012, months after a stage ­collapse at a show at the Indiana State Fair that killed seven and injured 100; a $39 million class-action ­lawsuit against the band, Live Nation and 16 other ­defendants was settled in 2014. Nettles is still legally forbidden to discuss the incident or the lawsuit.

Will Sugarland ever get back together? "A reunion is always on the table," says Nettles. "I love that project. But he and I are enjoying what we each are doing right now."

As for Bush, "I'd do it tomorrow," he tells Billboard. "We haven't communicated much, but I'm supportive of her doing her thing."

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What Nettles is doing is trying to stage a comeback. Her solo debut, This Girl (2014), a ­collaboration with that genius of sonic homespun, Rick Rubin, was starker, rootsier, more austere than Sugarland's buoyant pop-country. It hit No. 1 on the country album charts, but its singles didn't connect with radio ­programmers. Playing With Fire should be harder for them to ignore: The songs are witty and ­touching, penned by Nettles with some of Nashville's finest songwriters, including Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. But they're also catchy and punchy, ­polished by superproducer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Taylor Swift) to a radio-friendly gleam. "Dann is gifted at layering sounds in a really ­luscious, jewel-toned way," she says. "The sound on this record is real big and real bright."

Whether her new songs find their way onto the air may depend on forces, and politics, beyond Nettles' control. Nashville has begun to shake itself loose from the stranglehold of so-called bro ­country, but the gender imbalance persists. "I looked at the charts the other day," says Nettles. " 'Unlove You' is doing well. But I also looked and went: 'Between me and No. 1, there's one other woman. You're telling me between 32 and No. 1, there's one other woman? What?' My mind was blown."

Nettles never has been shy about her ­politics, which tilt to the left of many in country. "I'm a registered Democrat," she says bluntly. The singer played President Obama's 2009 ­inauguration, ­singing alongside John Legend and James Taylor in front of 400,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. She makes no bones about her choice in the current ­presidential race: Hillary Clinton. "It does mean something that she is a woman. Young girls, they can look at this and think, 'Oh! I could be president too.' That has a lot of value, beyond the ­minutiae of policy debates and budgets."

The younger generation is on Nettles' mind these days. Three years ago, she and husband Justin Miller, an ­entrepreneur and former model, welcomed a son, Magnus. The family splits its time between homes in Nashville and Manhattan's Tribeca. But Nettles has a packed live schedule, and mother and child are most often found on a tour bus, barnstorming the country. "Magnus is a little gypsy baby -- a ­seasoned traveler. It's a kid-friendly bus. There's a lot of toys. His bunk is fitted with Spider-Man sheets. It's more kid stuff than rock'n'roll stuff, for sure. It ain't quite like Willie Nelson's bus."

Magnus is also a good audience. "I sing to him," says Nettles. "In fact, I sing all the time. I sing in the bus. I sing around the house. But I don't sing in the shower." She chuckles. "I do a lot of ­talking to myself instead. In the shower, I win fake ­arguments."

This article originally appeared in the May 14 issue of Billboard.

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