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How Sweet it is

Jennifer Nettles finds success with Sugarland

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For eight years, Georgia's Jennifer Nettles sang her way around the South. She was a member of Soul Miner's Daughter in the '90s and then started the Jennifer Nettles Band, near the turn of the century, which often sold out smaller venues such as Amos' and Chapel Hill's Cat's Cradle. While fame eluded her, like it does many bands, she and her powerful voice soldiered on. Then, a few years ago, the stars aligned and a whirlwind of success began.

Nettles, 32, has been singing since age 7, but it was 2003 when her life changed. She had been with the same band members through both Soul Miner and JNB, and their lives were coming to a crossroads. She joined a country outfit called Sugarland -- with Kristian Bush and Kristen Hall (Hall left the band in 2006) -- which she viewed as a side project and opportunity to step outside her comfort zone. However, Sugarland's first album, 2004's Twice the Speed of Life, had three top-10 hits and sold more than two million copies -- so long, "side project." The band's sophomore effort, Enjoy the Ride, has sold more than one million since its debut last fall. Ah, the sweet smell of success ...

"They have been a lot of growth, that's for sure, in a lot of different ways," Nettles says of the last few years. "It's been fast and furious. I have found, in my life, the things that are the most unexpected really turn out to be the biggest surprises -- in a good way. I could tell a lot of energy was swirling above me, but I didn't know where the lightning was going to strike."

The bolt hit Sugarland. It's no surprise that Nettles' smoky, energetic vocals have found their place on the music landscape, and the power of the band's performances are fueled by her stage presence. She says the experiences she gained in those previous bands gave her a comfort zone when she's on stage, something she thinks hurts artists that are thrown into the limelight -- think American Idol. For her, little has changed from the small stage to the spotlight.

"There's a lot more real estate to cover," Nettles says with a laugh. "It's one thing when you are standing in front of a microphone stationary with your guitar or maybe you're moving around a little bit. With this thing, I take the microphone, I'm totally mobile and I'm running up and down and back and forth."

While many fans carried over to Sugarland when Nettles left her solo band behind, others left as well. However, country isn't new ground for her. Aside from growing up around the genre, she points out the country sounds of "El Camino" off of the 2002 JNB album Gravity: Drag Me Down and "Round and Round," off of 2000's Story of Your Bones. She thinks a lot of fans have followed her thanks to the diversity in her vocal styles and writing that has carried over, noting the variety that exists within country music -- bluegrass, country and western, pop, Southern rock. Meanwhile, some fans are just becoming aware of Nettles' previous life.

"I get people that come to the meet-and-greets and some of them will sometimes have my old album covers, and it's always just a pleasant little burst of nostalgia from my past," she says. "Here are these songs and they are definitely a marking point in my life as far as where I was then both professionally and personally."

As for the difference between then and now, she doesn't see much. Sugarland is the first time that Nettles has co-written, while previous efforts were always her own thoughts. The band has also brought her into a more positive musical area, as well. She said the old days focused on a more rebellious attitude -- and used more profanity, she notes with a laugh.

Over the last few years, Sugarland has been nominated for a handful of awards and walked away with a few, including a 2005 American Music Award for Breakthrough Favorite New Artist and a Academy of Country Music Award in 2006 for New Duo or Group of the Year. However, it was a win earlier this year at the 2007 Grammys that has meant the most for Nettles. She won the Best Country Collaboration with Vocals award for her duet "Who Says You Can't Go Home" with Bon Jovi.

"Usually, these award shows, I get a little bit sort of nonchalant about them," Nettles says. "While it is a huge honor to be recognized by awards, to me, it's the bigger and the biggest honor to be recognized by your fans who go out and buy your records and go to the shows. That being said, however, the Grammy got me. I mean, it is the highest honor that you can get in music. I was so shocked. When I looked at the category and who else was in it -- the Dolly Partons and all those -- I just felt like, 'Wow.' I was really shocked when I learned that I won it, and I am very proud of it. Very proud."

The band is currently opening for Kenny Chesney and hopes to headline their own tour this fall into the holidays. They'll also look at heading back into the studio to work on their third album. "We are currently writing," she says. "Well, we're currently 'enjoying the ride,' but we're writing for a new album and hope to go in the beginning of '08 to record." So, it's two albums done, one in the works and a long career ahead.

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