A musical reunion and YouTube were catalysts for Kristian Bush’s upcoming multi-album project 52, which begins rolling out with the release of the first installment, 52-ATLxBNA, on March 25 via Big Machine.
In the 1990s, prior to his Grammy-winning work as half of the duo Sugarland, Bush was part of another pairing, the alt-folk/rock outfit Billy Pilgrim, alongside Andrew Hyra. They released four albums, including the 1995 Atlantic Records project Bloom, which reached No. 37 on Billboard‘s Heatseekers album chart, before they later parted ways with the major label. In 2016, some 15 years after first recording together as Billy Pilgrim, Bush and Hyra reunited for a performance at the 30A Songwriters Festival and released a few live albums, followed by 2020’s In The Time Machine, a project of some of the duo’s final recordings from the ’90s.
“My work with Andrew had never been truly released on the internet so the two of us spent time bringing our ’90s band into the digital age,” Bush tells Billboard. “It was during that project that I realized how much value and opportunity was simply sitting in hard drives on my desk. I created a 24/7 YouTube channel that broadcasts all of these orphan songs and hidden gems from 1990 all the way through Sugarland. I would say the seed of 52 was planted then.”
This year, in celebration of turning 52 on March 14, Bush will release a slate of 52 songs throughout the rest of 2022, with some of the tunes’ origins stretching back to 2006. While other artists such as Eric Church and Morgan Wallen have released double and triple albums over the past couple of years, Bush will divvy up his 52 songs among four albums.
“Scott Borchetta [president/CEO/founder at Big Machine Label Group] made the suggestion to break it into four parts, and once I started to imagine the songs in groupings, it became even more interesting,” Bush notes.
On Friday (March 4), Bush gives listeners a glimpse into 52-ATLxBNA with a pair of newly-released songs, including “Tennessee Plates” and “Everybody Gotta Go Home.” The songs were written after the deaths of musician David Bowie and Bush’s father Jack Bush, both of whom died in 2016.
“Tennessee Plates,” a meditation of gratitude for peaks and valleys in the journey of a dreamer, finds its origins in the reconciliation story between Bush and his father. For years, their relationship had been strained, in part because the elder Bush wasn’t supportive of his son’s musical ambitions early on. However, in the months just prior to his father’s passing, Bush was able to spend precious, peace-making moments with his father. While en route to his father’s funeral in August 2016, the singer-songwriter dictated lyrics into his iPhone that he would later take into a writing session with Rodney Clawson and Andrew DeRoberts.
“My mother was probably the most supportive person you’ve ever met. She was the type of parent that signed us up for every class imaginable and took us everywhere she could to expose us to as much as she could,” Bush recalls. “Dad carried the pragmatism flag and mom carried the excitement. My brother and I were both lucky enough to graduate college yet we were both pulled toward music, which went against dad’s view of the world. I don’t think he ever really thought it was gonna work, and I don’t think mom ever considered that it wasn’t. My mom died before she could see this success of Sugarland.
“Years later our dad suddenly was claiming all of my success and my brother’s, though he wasn’t supportive of our music choices growing up,” Bush continues. “I invited him to the CMA Awards once and he came. I thanked him from the podium as we accepted another award. I figured I needed to be the one to forgive. Our relationship was strained for a while even after that because he wasn’t very interested in my kids or my solo career, but weeks before he passed away, he told me he was sorry. In that moment, he gave me faith in all people because if he could say ‘I’m sorry,’ even in his last few days, then nothing is impossible. So when you hear ‘Tennessee Plates’ and the line, ‘God bless everybody out there who told me I couldn’t do it,’ you might hear it differently. Sometimes hearing that something you want so badly is not possible, it can inspire you to work even harder.”
For “Everybody Gotta Go Home,” Bush took inspiration from Bowie, who created the album Blackstar while privately battling cancer.
“I woke up to find out David Bowie had died, and he’d made a record to be announced after his death,” Bush says. “I was struck by the responsibility of an artist not only to be courageous facing death, but also the fortitude to say, ‘This is happening to me, and I’m going to write about it.’ We talk all the time about how there’s nowhere you can go to class to learn to be an artist. When people like David Bowie do what he did, that is the class that you should be taking.”
For 52-ATLxBNA, Bush wrote the songs with many of his longtime Nashville co-writers, but for the recording sessions, he teamed with Atlanta R&B musicians, including drummer Jorel “J-Fly” Flynn, and Hornz Unlimited, known for their work on albums recorded by OutKast, Lionel Richie and more. For Bush, the sessions were about trying to recapture the feeling of a live performance he shared with his brother Brandon Bush and J-Fly in Atlanta.
“We were surrounded by some of Atlanta’s best R&B musicians when we walked on stage, and it was like someone plugged me into a socket and filled me with energy and joy. We wondered what it would be like to bring this kind of party to country music: What would happen if horns, pedal steel and back beats all show up to the same party?” Bush said.
An auditory shapeshifter, Bush has proven adept in several roles and styles over the course of his nearly three decades in music. In addition to Bush’s work with Sugarland and Billy Pilgrim, he teamed with his brother Brandon (formerly of the band Train) and Benji Shanks to form the group Dark Water. Along the way, he’s also notched several writing and production credits on projects for other artists, and issued a handful of solo projects, including last year’s old-time country project Troubadour.
As with Troubadour, Bush uses the 52 project as a means of musical exploration. The remaining three albums — to release this summer, fall and winter—will include rock songs, love songs and summer jams. They were recorded in Bush’s Decatur, Ga., studio The Projector Room, located mere blocks away from Eddie’s Attic, the music club that hosted so many of Bush’s early shows with Billy Pilgrim and Sugarland.
“Similar to my first solo album, Southern Gravity, the second volume of 52 should go perfectly with sunshine, sand between your toes or a boat out on the water. The third volume leans into my joy of playing and singing roots rock, and the fourth is a surprise,” Bush teases.
Bush has still more music ahead, with his third musical to be staged in Miami in 2023, while Dark Water will release its second album this year. Bush also produced an album for Megan Moroney, and has contributed songs for the band The Collection, as well as Ellis Paul.
“And I’m always writing for my next project,” Bush adds. “I am motivated by stories. I can’t get enough – I watch them, write them, sing them, listen for them all around me.”
See the track list Bush’s 52-ATLxBNA below:
- Everybody Gotta Go Home | Kristian Bush, Taylor Davis, Steve Bogard
- After The Wine Wears Off | Kristian Bush, Brett James, Andrew DeRoberts
- Mansion | Kristian Bush, Liz Rose
- Unbroken | Krisitan Bush, Andrew DeRoberts, Bob DiPero
- I’m With You | Kristian Bush, JT Harding
- Tennessee Plates | Kristian Bush, Andrew DeRoberts, Rodney Clawson
- Heart Of Yours | Kristian Bush, Jeffrey East, Dean Alexander
- World Ain’t As Bad As You Think | Luke Dick, Ben Hayslip, Chase McGill
- Gasoline | Kristian Bush, Bobby Pinson
- I’m Coming Around | Kristian Bush, Stephen Wrabel , JT Harding