Brandon Bush’s spirit animal is a dog.
But not just any dog.
Rowlf the Dog, the unflappable piano-playing Muppet who will joyfully break into song when needed but is otherwise content to avoid the mayhem and hang in the background, is an apt through line to Bush.
“He’s present; he is there to tell you how you feel, but in no way does he want center stage,” Bush said with a smile as he explained how the personality of the scruffy brown mutt puppet intersected with his own since childhood.
Bush is adept at quietly and prolifically creating behind the curtain. His résumé includes piano and organ work on some of the most ubiquitous hits of the late ‘90s and early 2000s (John Mayer’s “No Such Thing” and “Why Georgia” and Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby” among them). He joined Train for a few years in the mid-2000s and, since the 2004 debut of Sugarland, has played on record and live with Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush.
Yes, Kristian Bush is his big brother.
Maybe you’ve noticed Brandon behind a keyboard, tucked away toward the back of the stage, his handlebar mustache (which is “taking a break, but on its way back” this holiday season) and vibrant sleeve tattoos decorating his right arm — his most recognizable signatures.
Or maybe you haven’t. And that’s quite fine with him.
The glare that Kristian experiences as half of one of the most recognizable country duos in modern music history doesn’t appeal to Brandon. He doesn’t shun the limelight but is comfortable with his role.
“It brings me such joy to finish a show at night, bow, be grateful and be done,” he said. “There were years on the road with Sugarland where (after a concert) I would be in my bunk reading a book before people made it to their cars in the parking lot. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the experience. I think I feel the experience for what it is. It’s this exchange of energy that is wrapped up. It has nothing to do with me or who I am. It has to do with what I did.”
Brandon’s taut musicianship — his specialty is the vintage organs that line the brick walls inside the Decatur studio he runs with Kristian — earns him praise from his peers. But it’s also his personality that marks him as a rarity in an industry known for pettiness.
“Aside from this sort of exhaustive knowledge of a slew of musical genres, Brandon is whip-smart, crack-up funny and exudes a kind of palpable kindness that makes the room better,” said Susan Booth, Jennings Hertz Artistic Director at the Alliance Theatre who enlisted Brandon as musical director for recent productions of “Shakespeare in Love” and “Approval Junkie.” “Pretty much everyone who meets and works with Brandon falls in love. You can’t not.”
Indeed, Brandon, 46, radiates wry intelligence. He’s quick with a jokey comeback, but also presents an innate kindness and humility, particularly when discussing his chameleonic career.
Count Kristian among his brother’s most vociferous champions. The two talk every day, and communicate on stage and in the studio often without words, sharing a brotherly and musical language only they can interpret.
During a recent phone call, Kristian spent more than an hour thoughtfully elaborating on Brandon’s attributes.
“When it comes down to it, people who make and create art do it because they’re compelled to. They’re not doing it to be famous. What I do see that is unique in Brandon and other people who possess that magical power is the idea that, ‘This isn’t that important to me.’ That doesn’t mean that when it’s my turn, I don’t take it seriously. There are many people as good and talented as Brandon, but somehow they mess it up because they’re still stuck in that weird cycle,” Kristian said. “There are people who are super talented who want to be elitist about it. A lot of those positions probably come out of insecurity, and as a result, they tend to judge others. I don’t get any of that from him. It’s unbelievable what an amazingly fair human being he is.”
In the beginning
Brandon and Kristian grew up in the small town of Sevierville, Tennessee, about 30 miles from the biggest nearby city, Knoxville, where they would anticipate visiting the record store as teens.
“One time we got AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black.’ I remember us bringing it home like it was some contraband,” Brandon said, laughing at the memory.
The boys’ parents, Gayle and Jack, didn’t play music, but they loved it and immersed their sons in the Suzuki method of music curriculum. Brandon started violin at age 4, piano at 5, and when he hit 6th grade, lobbied effectively to swap the violin for drums. (The brothers are the great-grandsons of A.J. Bush, founder of Bush Brothers and Company, which produces Bush’s Best baked beans. But Brandon and Kristian’s family sold their company shares when they were young.)
In the years before, Kristian moved to Atlanta to attend Emory University, and Brandon headed to Washington University in St. Louis. The pair played together regularly — Kristian on guitar and bass and Brandon handling keyboards and drums.
The brothers made a couple of records. “They’ll never see the light of day,” Brandon laughed. And in high school, they learned about recording studios from their music teacher, Doug Klein.
After college — where Brandon tackled East Asian Studies, art history and Japanese — a few bands utilized his keyboard talents until Kristian called to say he needed his brother to work on a session he was producing at Nickel & Dime Studios in Avondale Estates.
It wouldn’t be the last time that Kristian recruited Brandon. “I’ve played two sessions my entire life without him as the keyboardist, and the whole time, I kept feeling this itch,” Kristian said. Yet, Brandon is self-aware enough to shrug off any grousing about nepotism.
“It is what it is. In many ways, it’s made me a better musician because I’ve had to walk into some sessions with some of the most amazing people, and it’s clear that I got the call because my brother’s involved,” Brandon said. “You have to perform. You have to do it right. But it’s a completely legitimate criticism.”
During his stint at Nickel & Dime, first as a regular session musician and then studio manager, Brandon met Atlanta musician-producer David Ryan Harris ( father of singer-rapper Yung Baby Tate) and, months later, became his keyboardist.
“I remember driving home from rehearsal one day and feeling like, that’s it, I’m actually a musician now,” Brandon said. “It was so freeing, like, all I have to do is be ready to play again tomorrow.”
The beat goes on
His musical ambitions accelerated when he met Atlanta singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins at a show where Brandon was performing with Billy Pilgrim, the band formed by Kristian and Andrew Hyra.
“Coincidentally, we were going to the same place the next day, and Shawn invited me to ride along with him and his dog. I’m a sucker for a dog, so I couldn’t pass that up,” Brandon said.
During their drive, Mullins described “in eerily accurate detail” what would become his breakout folk-pop hit, “Lullaby,” a worldwide smash in 1998 that features Brandon’s piano stylings on it, as well as the rest of Mullins’ “Soul’s Core” album.
Brandon chuckles as he recalls that period and thinking that the success of the Mullins record would instantly lead to more work.
“No one was like, ‘Quick, stop everything! We need the keyboard player from ‘Lullaby!’ But it gave me confidence,” Brandon said.
The late ‘90s acoustic-pop movement in Atlanta also attracted John Mayer and Clay Cook (of the Zac Brown Band) to move to the city, and through a series of friends — Mayer was working in the video duplication shop of one — Brandon met the eventual guitar superstar and recorded organ, electric piano and mellotron on the majority of Mayer’s “Room for Squares” album.
He flew to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, to work for a week with Mayer and producer John Alagia and called the experience “some of the most gratifying creative work I’ve ever done.”
“Now when I hear those songs – for some reason I hear them in [The] Home Depot and Publix all of the time. I’ll be taken right back to that idyllic week on the Chesapeake Bay in this weird abandoned house,” Brandon said.
Shortly after Mayer’s breakthrough release in 2001, Brandon ran into his old friend Harris at Smith’s Olde Bar. Producer Brendan O’Brien was working with Train — which had already cracked the Top 20 with “Meet Virginia” — on their second album at Southern Tracks.
“You need to be in that band,” Harris told him.
A couple of years later, after Train’s 2003 “My Private Nation” album, the band required a touring keyboardist, and Brandon received an invite from singer Pat Monahan.
It was supposed to be a temporary job, the kind of “come play your gig, don’t get in the way of the autographs” scenario that Brandon relishes.
He toured the world as a sideman; Train released a live record and then offered him and bass player Johnny Colt (the original bassist for The Black Crowes) membership in the band. It was “an amazing opportunity that you never get in this business,” Brandon said, so he accepted, even though he was also playing in then-burgeoning Sugarland as well.
Brandon and Colt played on Train’s 2006 album, “For Me, It’s You,” a middling success that was followed by a Monahan solo album and for Brandon, after almost six years with the band, provided the type of clarity he needed to move on.
“One of my big takeaways from Train – and I don’t mean anything disparaging about the guys — is that the band they had built was not interconnected. They didn’t have personal relationships that they were feeding and thriving on. They had a history, but they sort of isolated themselves from each other,” Brandon said. “It taught me to really foster the relationships with the people I make music with — which is natural anyway — but just to be wary of that, because it didn’t feel good when I realized that dynamic … Sugarland was taking off, and I was bouncing back and forth, and there was such a palpable difference. There would be nights I’d crack the wrong joke on the wrong bus, or I’d go in for a hug with the Train guys, and it would be like, ‘Uhhhhh?’ What I’ve always signed up for is the experience rather than some achievable token.”
Here and now
Brandon’s experiences have been vast.
He curated and hosted a weekly music show on AM 1690 (the station shuttered in 2018); composed the music for the video game “My Singing Monsters”; served as a trustee for the national board of the Recording Academy for four years and is currently a governor for the Atlanta Chapter; is on the Local Executive Board of the American Federation of Musicians; and, with Kristian, wrote a 30-second piece for TCM’s “Master of Titles” segment. The work took weeks to accomplish, and the network filmed a “making of” the music, which still airs.
“Funny enough, it is from that thing that I have been recognized by more people on this Earth,” Brandon said, eyes opening wide with incredulity.
He worked with Kristian as the musical arranger for the 2017 Alliance musical “Troubadour.” “The second I laid eyes on his face, I got obsessed by him being an onstage presence as well,” said Booth. And he recently scored the long-form podcast, “Gangster House.”
And then there is his current musical passion — Dark Water.
Brandon spearheaded the project and drafted Kristian and longtime guitarist friend Benji Shanks (who works with Blackberry Smoke). The band’s self-titled, self-produced release arrived in early December.
“I wanted to create some content in our studio that I could do something with — try to get licensed or placed — and it’s good experience,” Brandon said.
The rules were simple. The trio used The Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” album as a road map. Kristian could only write lyrics, no music, while Shanks and Brandon handled the instrumentation.
It turned out to be fully about the experience, no “achievable tokens” required.
“From the beginning, it was so fun, so freeing. It was all for the right reasons,” Brandon said. “It’s fun to take off the business hats and to see the joy in my brother because he doesn’t feel as if he has to prove anything. It’s just three guys having fun.”
Dark Water has played a handful of concerts, including the high-profile after-party at the Country Music Association Awards and one performance of Kristian’s annual post-Thanksgiving shows at Eddie’s Attic. And both Bush brothers expect to find time in early 2020 for more gigs before the next Sugarland release.
Brandon, who has been married almost a decade to wife Angie and has a 17-year-old stepson, Gibson, remains open-hearted and sincere about maintaining personal and professional integrity while working with his brother on such an intense level.
“We can work very fluidly with each other because we’ve done it so much. But we are at our nit-pickiest and most brutally honest in that creative space,” Brandon said. “We work and travel and do so much together. It’s a lot to ask of that relationship. But it’s also a wonderful gift to have.”
Kristian, meanwhile, understands Brandon’s desire to remain understated but wants to make sure his sibling’s musical gifts are effectively illuminated.
“When you grow up with Brandon Bush as your brother, you know he’s more talented than you are. He can figure out things with his ear further than I can; he can play faster,” Kristian said. “He’s the type of musician that every time you work with him, you leave better than you were when you showed up — and you don’t know why.”
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