Back in the days of Billy Pilgrim, Kristian Bush and Andrew Hyra were fixtures at Eddie’s Attic.
But then came Sugarland, and while Bush and Hyra never really broke up, they played less and less frequently. Still, Billy Pilgram had its stable of fans who yearned to hear those songs so Bush had an idea: Why not play an annual show at the Attic and pull out the whole repertoire – the Billy Pilgram songs, the Sugarland songs, the songs that no one had really heard yet and might become Sugarland songs.
That was eight years ago.
This weekend, Decatur-resident Bush is back at the super-intimate Eddie’s Attic – where he literally helped paint the walls and was the first performance when it opened 20 years ago – for two sold-out shows on Sunday and, for the first time, a third show that was added for Monday night.
He’ll be joined by old friends (Ellis Paul) and new ones (Canaan Smith) and is unabashed about the sentimental aspect of playing at the venue that catapulted his career.
In a wide-ranging conversation earlier this week, the always-affable Bush talked about his loyalty to Eddie’s Attic – even though it’s now run by Atlanta concert veteran Alex Cooley – what fans can expect to hear, how his songwriting process has changed and what is next for Sugarland, as partner Jennifer Nettle prepares to welcome her first child any day now.
Q. So what is it about Eddie’s Attic that holds so much meaning for you?
A. The cool thing about the Attic is that it was always about the music. Eddie used to be a bartender at Trackside [Tavern] across the street and if you could get a gig there it was $40 for a weeknight, $50 for a weekend show. The songwriters who would come through would be really high caliber. You’d see people at Trackside who were also on TV. It was very inspirational to see David Wilcox or the Indigo Girls.
When he opened the Attic, I actually did paint the walls and I was the first show. When Billy Pilgrim became big, we got signed out of the Attic, and then it happened a second time, so it’s a bit of a good luck charm. I love that it’s not too big, not too small.
Q. Does it matter that this is the first year that Eddie isn’t involved in the venue anymore? [He’s now at the Red Clay Theatre in Duluth.]
A. Alex is there now and those guys used to give me gigs back in the day – that’s how that worked. I’m just so excited that since it changed hands, that it changed to somebody who loves music.
Q. Why did you choose Thanksgiving weekend as the time to do the show every year?
A. My brother and I lost our mom on Thanksgiving morning and it was at first a keep-myself-busy kind of thing. Then as it started to happen, it coincided with the process of making records. Jennifer and I would traditionally write in December and January and make records in February and March, so it started to be upstream in my cycle of songwriting and I would try out new songs before they were Sugarland songs. So if you’ve been a fan and been there, you’ve heard Sugarland songs before they were recorded.
Q. How do you decide who is playing with you? Is it just a matter of who is available?
A. One of the fun things I get to do is introduce people to each other who don’t know each other and the fans trust me and the artists trust me, so I don’t think anyone is scared. This year is fun because Cannan is one of my newest friends and Ellis is one of my oldest – he sang with me on my very first No. 1 with Billy Pilgrim. Patrick Davis was a guest awhile ago and he’ll be back, and my brother [Brandon] will be at all three shows.
Q. Any idea yet what we will we be hearing?
A. The first thing you should know is I am a stupid Christmas music fan. I write Christmas songs every year and the chances of me putting something streaming on my website is pretty predictable. I’ve written 80-90 songs this year, so you’ll probably hear some of those. Then there is the Sugarland catalog, the Billy Pilgrim catalog – there’s a lot to choose from.
I love the idea that people in the room are discovering different things. If you’re a Sugarland fan, you’ll hear a song you know well from a voice you don’t usually hear it from. Like my version of ‘Baby Girl,’ people get the context of where we were when we wrote that song. We weren’t successful, we were in the emotion of running on hopes and dreams. If you’re a big Sugarland fan you might know about Billy Pilgrim and say now, I totally understand the context. I have songs coming out on the new Boys Like Girls record, so you may not know I write pop songs or traditional country songs.
Q. Considering the size crowds that Sugarland plays to these days, is it odd being in such a small room?
A. It’s a little different. I have to be careful when I perform in large venues because you turn the energy up to meet the energy coming at you. Connecting with an audience is something I really enjoy. I can come out burning pretty hot! [Laughs] I have to be careful not to burn up the room!
Q. How has the songwriting process changed for you? Do you feel like you’re still working at it?
A. It’s changed a little bit. I used to worry a lot more, worry over whether it was going to run dry or being prepared. A lot of the songwriting I’m doing is in service of another artist, so in the past I would have tried to write a bunch of ideas and be really well-prepared, but what I’ve been getting closer to is using the muscle over and over again. Instead of worrying, just go do it every day. It’s a lot more getting used to what it’s like to be creative every day. You have to be brave enough to go, ‘This could suck,’ and sometimes it does, and then you have to go ‘This is terrible, let’s make an adjustment.’ It’s a unique piece that’s come with age. I can pull myself out of a bad song just like you walk down the wrong alley. But I’m pretty lucky and excited about learning how a song can change your life or your day.
Q. What if your favorite song you’ve written?
A. They’re a lot like kids – the young ones have so much hope and the older ones have grown up and gone on. They have their own personalities and some will be super popular and some won’t. The metaphor keeps going. But ‘House on a Beach,’ a new song, I love that song. I love ‘Insomniac,’ an older song that I made up in my head that there was a girl out there for me and I would find her because her presence would make me sleep. ‘Gold and Green’ is a Christmas song with Jennifer that I love.
Q. How do you feel about country music right now, with Taylor Swift going so pop and Eric Church namechecking Springsteen and Jason Aldean having a very rock edge to his sound? Is that something you think about when you write, like how accepted will this be on radio?
A. Country music is really unique and sometimes it gets a strange rap from people don’t know much about country music. I exist outside of my own genre as well as within. Jennifer and I are very much the gateway drug to country music. People say to us all the time, ‘I don’t like country, but I love what you do.’ It’s a very wide format, but people might imagine it’s a small format. You’ve got everyone from Alison Krauss to Max Martin. You don’t have this kind of width on pop or hot AC.
It seems country goes through a cycle every so often where people are saying oh my gosh, that is NOT country, but I think it depends where you sit on where your country music is. What’s cool is that everybody can have their own. It’s not a redefinition by generation, but by taste.
You can tell Jason is a really big fan of southern rock and Taylor is a big fan of Swedish pop and what’s cool about it is that country radio is amazing at their ability to hold all of it.
As for whether I consider this stuff when I write, there is a reality to the fact that I write commercial music. There is a responsibility to your audience and radio’s responsibility to find songs that are great communicators of those things. What I’m most interested in is what the fans are interested in. There’s a place for all kinds of songs and I actually love the radio. I still can’t believe it sometimes when I hear myself on the radio. I have to struggle to keep my car between the lines.
Q. What are you listening to now?
A. I bounce around between radio stations, Q100, 106.7. I get on jags. Right now I’m on an Otis Redding jag, trying to learn from what he did because it’s representative of music of the South. I’m interested in what southern music is now, from Janelle Monae to me to Zac Brown to Blackberry Smoke – there’s so much range on it and I’m trying to track it back just a little. I also love the new record from Gary Clark Jr. He’s taking the history of blues and modernizing it. I think the fun. record is awesome, the Frank Ocean album is great.
Q. So going back to Sugarland for a moment – when the heck is Jennifer having that baby and what will it mean for the future of you guys?
A. [Laughs] That baby is coming any day now, she’s due next week. I can imagine first time mom-ing can be quite anxious, but she’s so cool, she’ll handle it.
Q. You’re a parent [to 7-year-old Camille and 10-year-old Tucker]. Did you give her any advice?
A. I tell all of my friends the same thing – don’t read the birthing books read the parenting one.
Q. Any idea how long Sugarland will be on hiatus?
A. This kind of space and time for a mother, you have to be as fluid as you can and give as much time as you need. Our work is so dominating that you can’t tiptoe back in, so we’ll take off as long as we need. There’s no pressure. All the people around us support us, from management through fans.
Q. So you have a long history in Atlanta, but with many of your peers moving to Nashville or New York, what keeps you here?
A. I love the town, the attitude Atlanta has with music. Atlanta embraces music and people who live here support their bands, whether it’s at the Earl or the Attic or Verizon [Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park]. People here still believe that music is a way to come together. I love that there are a lot of working musicians in this town. People might not realize that in the past couple of years, 70 percent of the Grammy nominations have come from Georgia. I’m a real fan of Georgia Music Partners because I’m a big fan of using any resource you can to use more musicians to play more music.
A lot of people say the industry is dying, but I see more people with more headphones on than ever. [The Internet] has freed musicians into becoming whatever they want, but having a career in the business is still based on the same things: hard work and talent. We all learned from R.E.M., the B-52s, Amy and Emily [of Indigo Girls] – work hard and work hard every day.
Kristian Bush and Friends perform at Eddie’s Attic at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Sunday (both sold out) and 8 p.m. Monday (some tix still available). $25. Eddie’s Attic, 515-B N. McDonough St., Decatur. 1-877- 725-8849, www.eddiesattic.com.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene