In March, Kristian Bush was strumming his guitar in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, bopping along beside his partner, Jennifer Nettles, wondering if the 2,000 Parisians massed before them really had any idea who Sugarland was.
Turns out they did.
"It was awe-inspiring. They were singing along and knew every word to every song. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck," Bush said.
That wasn t the only surreal moment on their European trip, which included dates in Italy, France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland. Expecting to sell a couple of hundred tickets for a show in London s Shepherd s Bush, they sold out the venue, and the morning of the show were invited to take part in a tribute to the Beatles.
"We went to Abbey Road [studios]. Jennifer and I sat in there and re-recorded Come Together to mark the 40th anniversary of the [Abbey Road] album. We were doing it in the same studio on the same mikes as the Beatles. I was just like, Wow, " Bush said.
The session will appear on the British television show Live from Abbey Road later this year.
It s appropriate that the one album that established Sugarland as superstars was the duo s second, "Enjoy the Ride," because that s exactly what they ve been doing. In the last year they ve been playing before sell-out crowds and the awards have been piling up. They received two Grammys earlier this year (Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Country Song for "Stay") and won Top Vocal Duo at the Academy of Country Music s show in the spring. In June, "All I Want to Do" earned Sugarland the Video Duo of the Year award at the CMT Music Awards.
Thursday night, they ll be playing before thousands of fans at Country Concert in Fort Loramie, Ohio.
"We love playing. For us, it s a shared art. The one time you record a song, it s stamped in time forever. It s magical to make a recording. It introduces people to us, but coming to the show is what matters the most," Bush said. "We believe when we perform that people must believe what you re saying and that it matters what you re saying. The fans are giving you the opportunity to say that and you have to respect that. For us, there is no such thing as phoning a show in. The fans need to feel respected."
The fans love affair with Sugarland has driven the group s success. Most artists build their base with a breakout hit, then follow up with a tour to capitalize on the buzz. Sugarland has always had a buzz about their performances, even before piling up hit songs.
Ask Bush what it is about a Sugarland show that inspires and he gets philosophical: "I think people are fascinated that we re happy. We really are choosing that. It s a choice Jennifer and I make. I think we re moving from a culture of materialism to a culture of meaning. People don t necessarily want the biggest house filled with junk. They want meaning. We believe in being human. There s energy in hope, love, and loss. We can communicate this in a place where you re not alone."
Nettles and Bush exude energy and happiness on stage, but if you were to point to a period in the duo s history that generated the most growth and surge in popularity, it would be some of the darkest days.
Sugarland was formed in 2003 in the Atlanta area by Bush and songwriting pal Kristen Hall. Bush had achieved commercial success as part of the duo Billy Pilgrim. Hall was a folk singer and songwriter on the Atlanta circuit. They invited Nettles, who was fronting the Jennifer Nettles Band, to take a shot at something new.
"This whole thing began as an organic process. It was pretty much, Hey, you want to write a song? I had No. 1s, Jennifer was selling out shows, but we said there really is no place for singer/songwriters. Let s see if there s a place for that on country radio. Turns out there was," Bush said.
"Baby Girl" was released in 2004 and climbed to No. 2 on the charts. "Something More" reached the same level. "Just Might (Make Me Believe)" and "Down in Mississippi" made it four hits from their debut disc, "Twice the Speed of Life," propelling the album to multiplatinum status.
But by the time the group was thinking about a second album, it was obvious that Hall s heart wasn t in the venture, and she didn t have the enthusiasm for life on the road. She left in early 2006, quickly turning the group into a duo. Despite the fact the three collaborated on songs, Hall had been seen as the driving force behind the group s clever lyrics, and industry observers speculated that the magic surrounding Sugarland would be destroyed. But that s not what happened.
"It was obvious Kristen wasn t happy. When you remove that energy, a sense of freedom happened. What happened was we exploded as songwriters," Bush said.
"Want to," the lead-off single off "Enjoy the Ride," became Sugarland s first No. 1. "Settlin " followed to the top of the charts. Their current album, "Love on the Inside," has produced three straight No. 1s ("All I Want to Do," "Already Gone," and "It Happens).
On Aug. 4, Sugarland will have their own television special on ABC. It will feature footage taken during a show at Rupp Arena in Lexington. It will be broadcast the day before the release of "Live on the Inside," a combination CD/DVD that will be sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.
It d be logical to assume that success has surprised Bush, but it hasn t.
"I don t think we ve exceeded expectations. I like to think we re just getting started. I always had high expectations, but the timing has been quicker than I expected."
Of course, that doesn t mean he s not enjoying every minute of the ride.
"Seriously, I have to pinch myself sometimes."
Country Concert begins Thursday and runs through July 12 at the Hickory Hill Lakes campground in Fort Loramie, Ohio. For a complete lineup, go to countryconcert.com. For tickets, go to the Web site or call 937-295-3000.