Sugarland’s Kristian Bush releasing 52 songs to celebrate 52 years on earth

He has worked in the same Decatur studio for 20-plus years.

Atlanta’s own Kristian Bush, at age 52, feels like he’s been at an interesting musical juncture every decade.

In 1992, at age 22, he signed a record deal with Atlantic with his roots-rock duo Billy Pilgrim. Ten years later, at 32, he formed what would become his Grammy-winning country act Sugarland. In 2012, at age 42, he signed his first solo deal. Now 52, he’s embarking on an ambitious project called “52,” releasing 52 songs from his back catalog of unreleased tunes over a span of four albums.

“The idea at this point in your career putting out four albums of new music seems insane,” the garrulous Bush said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at his homey studio in Decatur, which he has used since 2001. “But at the same time, anybody who knows me knows it’s been 15 years of build up. These aren’t songs that didn’t make it on something. These are songs waiting to be put on things.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

His younger brother and fellow musician Brandon Bush said this project represents Kristian’s prolific creative impulses.

“How many different ways can we slice and dice these songs and put them together and make some sort of sense?” Brandon said. His job, he mused, is more guidance counselor than muse: “I wrangle him. I provide quality control.”

Bush has more than 100 songs in the can to choose from and hasn’t finalized all 52.

First up are 10 cuts that became the album “52-ATLxBNA,” out March 25, referencing the airport codes for Atlanta and Nashville. Bush wanted to showcase his musical connections to both cities. The first songs sound more Atlanta R&B and the latter cuts more Nashville country.

“I wanted to ask the question ‘What happens when you squish them together?’” he said.

Bush, a 1992 Emory University graduate, never left Atlanta. While the success of Sugarland led Jennifer Nettles to move to Nashville, Bush stayed because of family and friends. “I’m one of the odd ones,” he said. “I’m the country music guy who didn’t move.”

Several years ago, he teamed up with Atlanta R&B drummer Jorel “JFly” Flynn, who brought in the horn section Jill Scott uses and backup singers. Several of those tracks ended up on “52-ATLxBNA” including the first cut “Everybody Gotta Go Home,” which has a bright Earth, Wind & Fire feel but is actually a rumination on death inspired by the surprising passing of David Bowie in 2016.

“It has a strong message,” said JFly, who became friends with Bush when they worked together on the board of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy. ”Even if you take the music away and just read the words, it still resonates.”

The first country-sounding single he has released is “Tennessee Plates,” a wistful ballad he wrote after his father Jack died. “I dictated what became most of this song at a stoplight on the way to Dad’s funeral,” he said.

To bolster the project, he is doing a “52″ podcast weekly with his friend Cindy Watts exploring a new song and pairing it with an older one.

The “52″ project was an idea Bush expected to release as an independent project. But much to his surprise, the label that handles Sugarland, Big Machine, embraced it.

“When Kristian called and asked if we could release 52 songs for him, I was intrigued with the reason why and the story,” said Big Machine chief Scott Borchetta in a statement given to the AJC. “Kristian is so musical and is inspired by so many different styles of music, he deserves to have all of these songs be heard.”

Bush is now working on the second album, which will feature summer-themed tunes. He hasn’t yet decided how to theme the other two, but plans to bring in members of all his bands for the final album.

Besides Sugarland, he has reunited Billy Pilgrim with Andrew Hyra and, in 2019, created Dark Water, a side project with Brandon and Blackberry Smoke guitarist Benji Shanks that melds the sounds of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers.

With radio losing steam as a promotional avenue and streaming ascendant, he said a project like this is more viable than it might have been a decade ago. “Let’s finally get all this music out,” he said. “The on-ramp is a little easier. The consequences of promoting this stuff is now very small. You used to have to roll the dice on 10 to 12 songs and promote them for two years.”

At the same time, he knows the odds of any one of these 52 songs becoming a massive hit is very small indeed. In the second half of last year, a whopping 82% of music consumed was older catalog cuts across streaming and sales. Anyone creating original tunes is fighting for that sliver of the remaining audience, Bush said.

Yet there is more new music than ever.

“Part of the issue when you don’t have support marketing wise, you’re going to get lost in the static,” he said. “That’s part of the reality... If you don’t release all these songs, your heart breaks and you stop writing. If you make stuff and you love it and it doesn’t get released, you get more anxious why you’re doing it.”

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Bush, a genuinely positive person by nature, has seen 52 years of professional and personal triumphs, surprises, disappointments and sadness.

Billy Pilgrim gave him plenty of musical satisfaction and critical acclaim but the group never had that mainstream Hootie & the Blowfish-level breakthrough. And the painful breakup between him and Hyra happened in the midst of 9/11 and the death of his mom Gayle at age 55.

The tsunami success of Sugarland in the 2000s gave him agency and respect in the country music business. With Nettles as lead vocalist with Sugarland, Bush happily played second fiddle in music videos with his signature hat and ubiquitous grin. At the same time, he produced all 14 top 20 country hits the band released between 2004 and 2010, from “Baby Girl” to “Stuck Like Glue” and wrote or co-wrote almost all of them as well.

He watched in horror in 2011 when high winds caused a stage to collapse while they were performing at an Indiana fair, killing seven people and injuring nearly 100 more. He also had to work through a divorce with his wife Jill Joyner that same year while enjoying the fruits of fatherhood raising his son Tucker, now a student at Auburn University, and daughter Camille, a junior in high school.

Bush said it’s hard to assess his life at age 52.

“When I close my eyes, I still feel like I just turned 40,” said Bush. “But when I open them, I am grateful for the wisdom gained this far in life, enough to appreciate the opportunities that present themselves. All in all I would have to say I am leaning forward.”

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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