Sugarland shows its rock 'n' roll side

TV preview

“Sugarland: Live on the Inside”

8 Monday on ABC

The rock ‘n’ roll and pop tunes on Sugarland’s new live CD, “Live on the Inside,” won’t be a surprise to fans, who’ve heard the country duo cover all these tunes in concert.

But taken together, the chestnuts from R.E.M., the B-52s, Pearl Jam and Beyoncé demonstrate a fact that Atlantans already knew well: Sugarland came to country from rock ‘n’ roll, and to rock ‘n’ roll it will return, every now and then.

“I think the curtain is being pulled back a little bit,” laughs guitarist/mandolinist/vocalist Kristian Bush, one-half of the country duo, when questioned whether “Live” reveals the metro side of Sugarland.

Powered by the strength of charismatic vocalist Jennifer Nettles, Sugarland expanded the boundaries of country music as it arrived on an already changing country scene, a confluence of trends that made a meteoric rise possible. “We started paddling on the wave as it was rising,” Bush says, during a chat from Los Angeles.

Their background finally made them good country ambassadors to the rock generation.

“We are the doorman for an entire set of country music listeners,” says Bush, who likes to see newcomers “come in through Sugarland and end up at George Strait.”

They’re opening the door wider next week, with a new live album, a DVD and an ABC television special that will air Monday detailing their “Love on the Inside” tour. That jaunt, promoting their 2008 CD, is the latest leg in a seemingly unending tour schedule that has kept the band on the road almost continuously since the 2004 release of their monster single “Baby Girl.”

Sugarland started out as an Atlanta trio, also featuring vocalist Kristen Hall, who had writing credits on every song on the group’s multi-platinum 2004 debut “Twice the Speed of Life.”

Hall left the group in 2006 and filed a $1.5 million suit against Sugarland last year. Bush wouldn’t comment on the suit, which apparently hasn’t been resolved.

Another of the bumps on the way to success has been a recent over-use injury to Nettles’ voice, which necessitated the canceling of several shows this month. “We’re kind of playing it by ear,” said Bush, after being asked when they’ll be back in action. “The vocal mechanism takes a while to heal.”

Luckily, he added, they can come into the living rooms of America through their ABC show. “We’re nothing if not completely ambitious,” he said. “We don’t have enough days to play everywhere we want to play.”

During a recent telephone interview Bush took time to talk about Sugarland’s Atlanta roots, the perils of the road and singing with Elmo. Here’s what he had to say:

On the ecumenical Atlanta [and Georgia] music scene:

"One of the things so inspirational about the Atlanta music — and I hope we’re carrying the torch — is that music made there, especially by the bands we covered, those bands didn’t have a genre they fit into. They did their best using the one that people stuck them in. They bent genre to where they needed it. [The B-52s] started off in New Wave and ended up in Top 40. ... R.E.M. did the same thing. Outkast does this. They are unshamed by boundary. I think it’s in the water in Georgia. ... It’s okay to make the music you feel."

On what Sugarland learned from their singer-songwriter days:

"You gotta have a great T-shirt, you gotta write a great song, and when you do a cover, you better mean it."

On the Atlanta band that they should have covered on the CD, but didn’t:

"I’m shocked that there’s not a Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ song on there."

On their cover of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”:

"We translated it through a very dark Appalachian place. I always thought that that song was a yearning song anyway. That was the definition of folk rock to me."

On singing with Elmo, Oscar the Grouch and other denizens of Sesame Street:

"Being on Sesame Street, it’s a mind-bender, man. I grew up [watching] it. When you find your own head sticking out of Oscar’s garbage can, you don’t know what to think."