When WTTV-TV Indianapolis airs Walk Tall: The Journey of Sugarland’s Kristian Bush on Sept. 6, it will carry an emotional weight for the community. The broadcast represents the first time that Bush has discussed on TV the 2011 collapse of a stage at the Indiana State Fair, a disaster that took seven lives, injured dozens more people and set off a chain of legal actions that required three years to resolve.
As the trailer illustrates, the accident came as Bush was grappling with a divorce so private that some of his best friends were unaware of it. And it was a prelude to a professional decision that led to Bush releasing a solo album while Sugarland partner Jennifer Nettles pursued her own solo career.
That mix of personal and professional turmoil makes for good drama, which is a major reason why Walk Tall is the opening project as Cumulus moves its Nash brand into syndicated TV. The episode, which has commitments and/or air times from more than 70 TV stations, is the first of several artist bio specials Nash TV Films is distributing in an agreement with Sinclair Broadcasting, a major syndication company.
“I got into country music [because] with songwriting, you’re able to create great stories in three, four minutes,” says director/co-executive producer Stokes Nielson, former frontman for The Lost Trailers. “I guess what I’ve found in my journey is there’s lots of ways to create these great stories.”
Bush’s story is a particularly interesting one. In the aftermath of the Indiana tragedy, Nettles ventured off to do a solo project, leaving Bush to explore his own solo possibilities. He signed a deal with Streamsound, co-owned by longtime Sugarland producer Byron Gallimore, and released “Trailer Hitch,” an optimistic single that values life above finance. It peaked at No. 21 on Country Airplay, a respectable showing for an independent title, but the radio promotion tour that precipitated that run led rather ironically to Walk Tall.
Bush had dinner with a programming executive at iHeartMedia, Cumulus’ primary rival, in a small New York café, where the couple at the neighboring table couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. The man at the next table was Sinclair Television Group co-COO Steve Pruett, whose assistant was a Sugarland fan. Sinclair, it turned out, saw some potential in country-themed programming, and about a year later, Sinclair execs took a meeting with Cumulus executive vp content and programming John Dickey, who had envisioned the Nash brand spreading into TV from its introduction in January 2013.
Cumulus had already made its TV entry in December 2014 with the inaugural American Country Countdown Awards on Fox. But the biographical series represents a more natural extension of the content already being created on NashTV.com.
“The strategy was to start with short-form content and then very quickly roll that into long-form content,” says Nielson. “The snapshots that you can get in three to five minutes are really compelling, but when you dig into artists’ lives and their journey, you find these really rich stories of what I think is kind of a unique American experience, of being able to do country music as your life.”
Bush’s story is practically made for TV drama. He had two major-label deals as the member of a duo (he was one-half of Atlantic signee Billy Pilgrim in the 1990s), but as the harmony singer in Sugarland, he operated in Nettles’ shadow. Stepping into a solo career with a familiar face and an unfamiliar voice carried some risk, and the baggage of the divorce and the Indiana tragedy made it an emotional journey in the unknown. Bush entered the Nash TV Films deal trusting that it would find the proper voice — frank, but not so sensational that it becomes a Behind the Music knockoff.
“It’s like a good country song,” reasons Bush. “I don’t mind putting a lot of drama into a song, as long as you do it with respect. Their pitch to me was, ‘We’re going tell your story, and it’s going be, at the end, less about you and more about people themselves looking at their own lives, having gone through bad things and never giving up.’ I said, ‘If that’s what we’re doing, then I’ll do that all day long.'”
Walk Tall debuts Labor Day weekend, a timely opportunity, given that the Muscular Dystrophy Association is no longer filling Sunday and Monday with its annual fund-raising program. Such key stations as WPIX-TV New York, KTLA-TV Los Angeles and WXYZ-TV Detroit are onboard while both Bush and Cumulus explore their future opportunities. Cumulus and Sinclair are likely to announce more biographical country specials in September, and there may be non-bio projects as well. But it’s a nonexclusive deal, allowing Cumulus to develop other partnerships or ventures.
Bush, meanwhile, is back on the market. The Streamsound solo deal was a one-year agreement that expired in the last few weeks, leaving him free to shop around. Nettles parted ways with Universal Music Group Nashville, though Sugarland remains with UMG. Thus, Walk Tall tells a story that’s still in development. But he figures Walk Tall has the potential to be good for the business partners and possibly inspirational for the viewers. At the very least, it’s destined to be entertaining.
“Anybody who sets out to do something crazy like play music for a living — unless you’re like the child of somebody who made music for a living — you didn’t even think it was possible,” he reasons. “So your journey’s always going to be interesting.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.