BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Kristian Bush has sold about 20 million albums with Sugarland and, in some pockets of music, remains a cult hero from his time in the folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim.
But in the lead-up to the release of his debut solo album, “Southern Gravity,” Bush strapped his acoustic guitar to his back and started knocking on doors.
“I would walk into radio station lobbies and conference rooms and I would play to sandwich shops or wherever they wanted me to play. I did it in Billy Pilgrim and I did it in Sugarland and I did it all over again for this. … (My attitude became), if you believe in something, then just never give up. Let your hard work speak louder than waving a flag,” Bush said.
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Often when he talks, Bush’s eyes smile, the crinkles around them illuminating his gentle demeanor.
Sitting in The Projector Room, the cozy Decatur studio he’s inhabited for 20 years — and the space where he auditioned Jennifer Nettles to be another voice in Sugarland — Bush never lets go of an instrument.
First, it’s a guitar-ukulele, which he cradles on his lap. Later, he grabs one of the many acoustic guitars propped against recording equipment and breaks into a spirited instrumental, sometimes grinning, sometimes grimacing, but always feeling something.
That was the goal with the dozen songs — whittled down from a couple of hundred in the Bush vault — that comprise “Southern Gravity,” a soulful album that spawned a country hit with the breezy “Trailer Hitch” and provided Bush with an outlet to shed (or, maybe, share) some emotional weight.
We’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, Bush, 45, is talking about the whole back-to-the-beginning aspect of life as a solo performer and why he sort of enjoys the process of reintroducing himself as the voice most knew as the one behind Nettles’.
His performance this weekend at Shaky Boots is one of the earlier slots on Saturday — 2 p.m. — and that’s totally cool with a guy who spent plenty of time playing massive sheds and stadiums.
“I’m starting at the beginning and winning new fans one song at a time, and a festival crowd really gives you the chance to do that. It’s fun to go out there and entertain with the sun up. It’s different than with the sun down. And my newest album is supposed to be played in the sunshine. Everything is working out.”
He smiles from under his omnipresent fedora. There are those crinkles.
Ironically, the pleasantly rootsy sounds that color “Southern Gravity” were generated during some of Bush’s darkest times. Indeed, a close listen to the lyrics — and a reading of the lovingly crafted liner notes — explain the pensiveness buried in the crevices of many songs.
It started in August 2011.
Sugarland was preparing to take the stage at the Indiana State Fair when gusts from an approaching storm caused the stage’s roof to collapse. Seven people were killed and nearly 60 others were injured.
Bush has only recently started opening up publicly about the sorrow and trauma of that day — “It was like the sky fell,” he said softly, eyes getting glassy at the memory — and said he and Nettles were immediately told not to talk about the incident.
A couple of months after the tragedy, Bush and his wife were knee-deep in divorce proceedings that they had been working on for a couple of years, “trying to get it right” for the sake of their son and daughter, now 12 and 9.
Because of the interest in the fair accident, Bush knew there would be “poking around,” so the couple requested — and was granted — that the divorce papers be sealed.
So he couldn’t talk about it.
“Emotional weight on top of emotional weight, and I couldn’t say anything to anybody. So it felt like my only way to talk to people was to write songs. I just had to hide it enough so that people weren’t hearing what I was saying as literal,” Bush said. “There’s a whole series of records I made during that time that people aren’t going to hear.”
But the 12 songs that emerged are what he wants people to experience, whether they’re longtime Sugarland supporters or new fans of that guy with the “Trailer Hitch” song.
“What I need, and what I think people around me need, are a couple of more smiles,” Bush said. “This album, I hope you listen to it and it makes you feel better and it makes you think.”
While Bush has been quietly assembling his album and touring regularly for the last year — a routine he’ll continue through 2015 — Nettles also released a solo album, toured behind it and recently finished a stint on Broadway, co-starring in “Chicago.”
What does that mean for Sugarland?
Well, Bush is ready and willing.
“Whenever the record company calls and says, ‘We want a record,’ I am ready to do a record. I have no idea where Jennifer is on her page, but I just keep waiting for the phone call. But the great thing is,” he said, a side grin emerging, “I get to keep doing this until I get it.”