Say What? – Kristian Bush

I ran across the following quote attributed to Kristian Bush (of Sugarland) in an article in the U.K. newspaper The Independent, frankly titled: “Far from the old country music: Nashville is making yet another attempt to conquer the UK charts with artists who have crossed over so far they are virtually mainstream.”

Bush can barely hide his impatience at alt.country’s arrogance. “The songs that will survive 40 years from now will have to do, not with their excellence at how they interpreted post-modern Appalachia, but how they interpreted the human condition. And in the end, as much as I’m a huge Wilco fan, no one’s going to remember them. They’re going to remember Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” – because that story is true. There’ll be another girl sitting at a window who’s kissed someone and that song speaks to her. And really, [Wilco and ex-Uncle Tupelo singer-songwriter] Jeff Tweedy singing about being lonely and poor and dumped, all these things which he is not…

“There are only so many thirtysomethings who’ll emotionally connect to style over substance, which a lot of [modern] Appalachian stuff is. I’m a huge Gillian Welch fan, but she’s from Malibu, California. I’m from Dolly Parton’s hometown Sevierville, Tennessee. I should be playing what she’s playing, according to our histories. Our song “Baby Girl” deals with some sort of human archetype, anyway, a story of the hero. It just rings differently in your bones. Country music is unafraid of that human substance.”

Without intending to pick on Bush (and still disbelieving that Katy Perry has a tag on Country Universe), do you agree with him?

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47 Comments

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47 Responses to Say What? – Kristian Bush

  1. That’s stupid on so many levels I can’t gather my scattered raging thoughts into a coherent argument.

  2. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    So, is Bush saying that alt-country chooses style over substance? That’s pretty harsh to suggest, I’d say.

    I’m not quite sure what he’s saying regarding Perry’s song versus a Wilco song… Is he saying that Perry’s music is more authentic than that of alt-country? I’m unsure because such a statement seems utterly ridiculous. So, I’ve gotta be misinterpreting.

    It’s always difficult for me to completely decipher the meaning behind Bush’s words without feeling like he’s insulting everything that’s not Sugarland.

  3. Lynn, if you don’t mind, I’d like to post the link to the article because it contains even more “gems” like this:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/far-from-the-old-country-music-1643705.html

    The reach of country radio is so deep, it’s got to the point where the fans are controlling the music,” Bush believes. “When you have that many people, it becomes revolutionary – if they decide country music is X, Y or Z, because that’s what they’re gonna buy, the radio programmers and labels follow.”

    What is Kristian Bush talking about?!

    The article itself actually contains some major errors (Taylor Swift is on Garth Brooks’ label? News to him, I’m sure).

  4. Maybe we’d like to think that statement is stupid on so many levels, but it’s nothing but true. How many songs by Wilco have seeped into the general public? There’s no denying that there are brilliant and deep sentiments being expressed in alt-country songs, but people aren’t buying it.

    So having said all of that, I then issue a challenge to Kristian. Use your “pull” to write poppier songs that have some substance, and not drivel like “It Happens”.

  5. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    It’s worded awkwardly, but I’m assuming that the article meant that they’re on the same label? I don’t know if Garth is officially on the Big Machine label, but his last Greatest Hits package was distributed through them.

  6. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I’m just not understanding how singing about being lonely, poor and dumped is less relateable to people than kissing a girl and liking it. I’m sure part of alt country’s lack of popularity compared to pop music has to do with its substance, but I think there’s more to it than that.

  7. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Once again, I’ll start by saying that I get what Bush was fundamentally trying to say here. It’s true: a lot of “alt-country” is style over substance. I know that, because I see the bias in myself: I’m more inclined to take a more traditional-leaning artist seriously simply because they’re doing the “right” thing – the “cool”, counter-cultural thing, even if the music itself isn’t really as transcendent or genuine as what it’s trying to emulate (Hank, Carter Family, etc). And it’s true: most alternative/indie music won’t be remembered several decades from now because, well, it’s alternative/indie. The artists will always have passionate fans, but precious few of them will evolve into legends.

    But do those two things – that some music is more style than substance, and that most won’t go down in history – prove that all alt-country is failing as music that really speaks to the human condition? That’s a really, really ignorant thing to suggest, and the idea that “I Kissed a Girl” will outlive most alt-country simply because “it speaks more to the human condition” is ridiculous. If that song lasts, it will be remembered more for its social relevance, while the music itself will probably seem very cheesy to future generations. But guess what? There’s also a decent chance it won’t last – lots of #1 hits haven’t.

    I could go on and on, really. But here’s what it boils down to: I get everything Kristian Bush keeps trying to say, but he needs to figure out ways to phrase his vision for Sugarland that don’t denigrate other artists and styles of music, because he is clearly not savvy enough with his wording to bring his message home without knocking heads along the way.

  8. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Dan Said: “But here’s what it boils down to: I get everything Kristian Bush keeps trying to say, but he needs to figure out ways to phrase
    his vision for Sugarland that don’t denigrate other artists and styles of music, because he is clearly not savvy enough with his wording to bring his message
    home without knocking heads along the way.”

    Yes, that’s exactly what I think. Even when I agree with him (though I don’t always), I don’t like his lack of sportsmanship about it. He could speak in more general terms and still get the same message across.

  9. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    OK, one more thing, I can’t resist. I don’t think he would even feel the need to make this kind of argument if he weren’t self-conscious about not actually being grounded in a sense of country music tradition. I mean, is he suggesting that “post-modern Appalachian” music (which seems like a fancy way of saying country that sounds even semi-traditional) isn’t genuine or relevant to the human condition anymore, and therefore Sugarland shouldn’t be expected to do it? It all sounds very defensive on his part.

  10. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I’ll also add that I think it’s odd for him to suggest that alt-country is style over substance. As opposed to what? Much of the stuff that I’m hearing from today’s mainstream music certainly doesn’t seem like it’s substance over style, anyway.

  11. DiamondNo Gravatar

    Ms. Nettles, your solo career is calling…

  12. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I love Gillian Welch!

  13. CMWNo Gravatar

    Since Dan pretty well nailed the eloquent response, I’ll offer the gut response: Kristian Bush needs to stop talking.

  14. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar

    I get what Bush is trying to say, but he has to chose his words more carefully. If the message is going to get lost in its transmission, it’s better to say nothing at all. Then again, perhaps the interviewer got under his skin and he was rambling.

    I agree with Dan about alt-country, though I have the opposite bias. When things hew to closely to reproduction of old-school country music, my bias runs against it. It sounds too contrived for me, as if going for authenticity sacrifices the sincerity along the way.

    I had left the Hank III album in my Cd player and listened to a bit of it again, and the opening song about the Grand Ole Opry not being grand. It felt so forced to me that I couldn’t take it seriously.

  15. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I can only take Hank III so seriously myself, though I personally love it when modern artists hearken back to traditional sounds.

  16. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar

    I like what I call the progressive traditionalists, the ones who produce traditional music while still pushing the genre forward musically, like Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, and even Randy Travis, who put out some pretty innovative records in his day.

  17. JoeNo Gravatar

    He seems to be trying so hard to avoid being offensive that I don’t even really understand what his exact point is.

    I definitely disagree with his assertion that country radio is more open minded and controlled by the public than ever before. I think the lack of diversity in terms of artists and song subjects on country radio is extremely disappointing and I don’t think that current radio trends necessarily coincide with what the overall public wants to hear. Playlists are tighter than ever and radio is more controlled by record label conglomerates than ever before so only a select few have a chance of being played regularly.

  18. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I like both…and prefer listening to your description in the end, but I can’t help but enjoy modern artists just going back and immersing themselves in the old school sound too. I don’t ever expect those careers to advance very far, however, if they’re not pushing country music forward somehow like the artists you’ve mentioned have done.

  19. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Well, I’m definitely not into modern artists who seem to consistently pretend they’re from a bygone era. That was one of the only issues I had with Gillian Welch’s debut album; with the gingham dresses, the production and some of the subject matter, it seemed like she was playing a role more than reporting real life experience she was genuinely familiar with (whether hers or not), although I think she played the role very well. She’s gotten better in that regard since, so it’s much easier to take her seriously as an artist now, although the talent was never in question.

    Justin Townes Earle is kind of like that, too – super-talented, but his style is so retro that he has to be careful of not coming across as kitschy. I definitely believe that you can write traditional country music without trying to emulate a past culture, but you have to take an honest look at what feels genuine about your material and what feels put-on. A song like his “Hard Livin'” is a good example of how to do that, in my opinion – it definitely has a traditional structure, but the lyrics feel timeless rather than dated, and the production reflects an “updated” understanding of traditional music. I like that.

  20. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I guess I don’t mind if they’re playing a role, as long as it’s played well.

  21. dudleyNo Gravatar

    It is really frustrating to me that here we have a mainstream country artist who seems to be extremely musically engaged and willing to talk in detail about trends in country music, but he’s one who relies largely on negative and self-congratulatory examples. I love that Kristian Bush is musically ambitious and passionate and I think that ambition and passion is backed up to an admirable degree by Sugarland’s most recent studio album. Yet I’m finding myself rolling my eyes and thinking, “Shut up, Kristian,” with increased frequency lately.

    Also, I disagree with him in that I don’t think authenticity is determined strictly by background and experience. If it were, I would have to make a kneejerk dismissal of Danny Boyle’s portrayal of Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire. And that would be a shame, because I believe he has captured an energy and rhythm of the city that I’ve yet to see any director, Mumbai native or otherwise, do. Imagination has a role in achieving emotional truth, and I think the ability to step outside of the confines of one’s own limited thought to try to know what it is like to be someone else is a defining aspect of interpretive skill.

    As for country radio, although I agree with Joe’s point about the tight corporate control over playlists, I see Bush’s point is that if an artist can develop enough of a loyal fanbase by other means (say, MySpace), then radio will follow. I do think it’s true that country radio has been a follower than a leader when it comes to taste. Playlists seem driven by a very narrow definition of what suits think females 35-44 will listen to (or, more to the point, what will prevent the most people from changing the channel). But like Joe, I’m not at all convinced the suits are hitting their mark (the disparity between airplay and sales for both new and veteran male country artists suggests that the suits are in fact misreading their target audience).

  22. vpNo Gravatar

    Leeann said “It’s always difficult for me to completely decipher the meaning behind Bush’s words without feeling like he’s insulting everything that’s not Sugarland.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Diamond said “Ms. Nettles, your solo career is calling…”

    You may be on to something….

    Dan said ” It all sounds very defensive on his part.”

    I think the majority of his statements do.

  23. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Haha, cheers, CM.

  24. Paul DennisNo Gravatar

    My reaction to Kristian Bush’s ramblings: “huh ?”

  25. “So, is Bush saying that alt-country chooses style over substance? That’s pretty harsh to suggest, I’d say. ”

    Not only is it harsh, it’s untrue. It’s mainstream country that’s lacking in substance these days, not alt-country.

  26. Martin in NYNo Gravatar

    Oh, no, I hate that he said this. I mean, I love Sugarland so much sometimes. I even overlook some of their really annoying stuff like “All I Wanna Do”. But this is just silly of him to say. I agree with many of the commenters here about him being so afraid to be controversial that he ends up being controversial to the people who might actually most understand his views.

    I agree with Dan: ” I don’t think he would even feel the need to make this kind of argument if he weren’t self-conscious about not actually being grounded in a sense of country music tradition.”

    I think Bush’s comments may come from Sugarland trying to be mainstream and “authentic” at the same time, therefore confusing them as artists. They hold a very unique and interesting place in the curent country music world.

    I keep thinking that Sugarland may be struggling with similar issues The Dixie Chicks faced around the time of Fly. The, they of course, went and made Home.

    It will be interesting to see what they do next.

  27. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar

    He’s absolutely right. I like Wilco, but few listen to them today, and fewer will be doing so in 20 years. That’s the rule with niche artists and niche music.

  28. “I don’t know if Garth is officially on the Big Machine label, but his last Greatest Hits package was distributed through them.”

    He and Taylor might be on the same label in Europe. I don’t know if Big Machine even exists over there; they may have licensed their albums out to another label for European distribution. Just a thought.

  29. William WardNo Gravatar

    Not many bands pass the “will be listened to in 10 or 20 years” test, it certainly isn’t something that only niche bands have to worry about. One of the biggest hits of 1993 was “Informer” (Snow), yet I would expect that it gets much less play these days than the somewhat niche country-rock “Harvest Moon” (Neil Young), which I don’t believe even make the charts in the United States.

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  31. I just finished reading the full article. Two thoughts:

    1. It’s news to me that Dwight Yoakam failed in Nashville
    2. What planet is Kristian Bush from? How can he possibly think that the fans are controlling country radio, when in fact, the fans have been complaining that their voices are not being heard by radio programmers?

  32. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar

    I think you’ve proved my point, William. Artist like Neil Young – i.e., the kind who do make fairly obvious plays for popularity by producing sequel albums like Harvest Moon – are the kind who we’ll be listening to in 20 years. I thought Harvest Moon did pretty good too on the charts didn’t it?

    And songs like Informer will be listened to as well. Why? Because it was popular in the past. So Informer? Yes. Snow? No. Any songs by Wilco? Probably not.

  33. MrsandyNo Gravatar

    “And in the end, as much as I’m a huge Wilco fan, no one’s going to remember them. They’re going to remember Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”. I’ll make Kristian a little bet: I say in 10 years, the number of credible musicians who cite Wilco as an influence will far exceed those who cite Katy Perry. Just as today, there are more who credit Emmylou Harris or Steve Earle (hey! someone should write a song about him!) than do Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam or Toni Basil.

  34. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar

    What is a “credible musician”, Mrsandy?

  35. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    I’ve read here about some of the absolutely flaky things that hot-shot country artists have said about their fellow performers, but Kristian Bush really does take the cake. He doesn’t sound terribly secure in his or Jennifer Nettles’ places as Sugarland, if he’s going to go off on Gillian Welch for doing the Appalachian revival thing while being from Malibu, or say that he should be doing what Dolly is doing because they’re from the very same town. He criticizes the alternative country movement for its supposed arrogance, and yet he comes across as being quite arrogant himself. He needs to get real, though maybe that’s asking a bit much of him.

  36. William WardNo Gravatar

    I’m not sure I follow where I proved your point. Is your arguement include that Neil Young has a habit of making “obvious plays for popularity,” and that Harvest Moon (the Album) fits that description? That people are listening to “Informer?”

    In anycase, I was comparing the songs “Harvest Moon” and “Informer,” not the song “Informer” with the album Harvest Moon. As far as I could dig up, “Harvest Moon” did not chart at all, the album Harvest Moon peaked at #16.

  37. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I guess I’d rather be respected than simply remembered, which is something that Bush seems to be knocking, though I suspect it’s actually the goal for him as well. He’s just no good at expressing himself and really must possess the insecurity that Dan talked about above.

    As for the actual article, it is definitely confusing in places. So, who knows what the atmosphere was like for Bush. Then again, this isn’t the first backhanded comment from him though…more like the third that I can recall. So, I can only blame the interviewer so much at this point.

    I think Mrsandy has a pretty viable bet going though.

  38. He’s insecure because he knows he’s just window-dressing. But I’m beginning to like him less and less the more he opens his mouth.

  39. TinaNo Gravatar

    Can I get a show of hands please…… how many of us here, at one point, have been lonely, poor, or got dumped? OK, now how many of us girls have kissed another girl, and liked it? Anybody?? Didn’t think so. And so what if WILCO’s lead singer/writer isn’t any of those right now. Can he not write about his past? Can he not draw a deep sense of substance and belonging from watching others go through things? Shut up Kristian!

    Alt Country by no means lacks substance. Of course there are some artists out there who may not be quite up to par, but that goes for any genre. For him to throw all those artist under the bus like that, well, I just hate Sugarland even more now.

    And I’d like to end by adding a quote from another article. And while you read that, think back to any of the Alt Country or Red Dirt shows you’ve been to…… great music and great showmanship. Who do these two think they are???

    ”You may see Jennifer Nettles play the piano or a bass guitar. I love throwing down the challenge to all the other country musicians. Sometimes you have to choose the fork in the road: the entertainer, or the musician. You go down one road long enough, and you end up Alison Krauss and Union Station. And you go down the other road, and you end up Kenny Chesney. Not to say that Alison isn’t a great entertainer or Kenny isn’t a great musician, but a lot of times that was traditionally the choice you had to make. We’re gonna challenge it, and say, ‘We wonder if you can do both.’”

    ~Jennifer Nettles, Sugarland

    Honey, please. You are no pioneer.

  40. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Ah, I thought that quote was also from Christian Bush, not Nettles.

  41. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    I would LOVE to read a disclaimer such as the following;

    The views expressed in the statements in question are soley those of Mr. Bush, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or philosophy of Jennifer Nettles, or the musical entity known as “Sugarland”…

    A disclaimer on the disclaimer, this is not real, but I wish it was. I HOPE that Jennifer does not share the exact same musical philosophy as expressed in Mr Bush’s recent statements.

    It seems like an inverted musical universe that KB lives in, where p.o.s. songs such as “All I Want to Do” represent substance over style? And roots music is just the opposite? I’m beginning to think that Mr. Bush puts the “sugar” in Sugarland, and attempts to pass off musical junk food as substantial fare. I wonder what color the sky is in his world.

    I’m beginning to think he is a musical snake oil salesman.

  42. Sadly, statements like this are only going to lead to more people looking at Sugarland as just a band of opportunistic singer/songwriters who followed a trend to a goldmine. Hopefully they right the ship and let the music speak for itself. Martin in NY mentioned the Dixie Chicks and “Home”. How great would it be if Sugarland would take a year or two off, and come back with a record as good as “Home”? Then again, he’d have to talk about being lonely and poor and dumped.

  43. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    The strange thing is that country music is kind of built upon songs about being lonely, poor or dumped. So, I don’t know why Bush seems to be suggesting that it should be otherwise.

  44. MarcNo Gravatar

    Katy Perry++

  45. I believe the quote about ‘we wonder if we can do both’ was from Kristian Bush, not Jennifer Nettles.

    And Razor said “He’s insecure because he knows he’s just window-dressing. But I’m beginning to like him less and less the more he opens his mouth.

    Exactly. His few vocal contributions to the group’s songs are usually annoying to me anyway – and his quotes are getting more John Rich-esque every day.

  46. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    I just don’t see “pretentiousness” of roots singers or wannabe roots singers trying to appear retro as a huge problem in Country music today..If anything, at least it’s a nod in the right direction, from my point of view anyway..

    I think Mr. Bush should worry about the diluting influence of Pop on Country music today, and start by cleaning his own musical house. He should offer atonement for inflicting songs like “All I Wanna Do” on the public. THAT is the far greater offense, far greater than any artists’s so-called pretense at trying to appear Traditonal.

  47. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    A bigger problem may be the country music industry’s seemingly insatiable need to cater to an adult contemporary audience that doesn’t really care much about country music beyond a few selected artists and their songs.

    But neither Bush nor Nettles do much for their cause by dissing alt-country performers who, if they’re not bedrock Traditional, at least understand the rich history and roots of country music. This is in complete contrast with Sugarland, who don’t even seem to CARE for, let alone UNDERSTAND, the genre’s roots and history.