Culture // 5 min Read

Good Music: Kristian Bush

Written by Courtney Hampson

Aug 22, 2016

“What an interesting job I have. I mean, the people I meet are rock stars, but my kids are the coolest people I know. By instinct you love them, but there should be some grading on the curve, right?”

As one half of the award-winning, multi-platinum duo Sugarland, Kristian Bush has seen his star rise exponentially over the past decade. But, at the end of the day, he is a Dad, managing the personalities of his eight year old daughter Camille and 11 year old son Tucker.

And no, it’s not weird that this story would start with his kids. After all, Bush’s entire story is about family really. And by family I mean the Bush Family. Not the White House Bushes, the Baked Beans Bushes. I kid you not. Interesting tidbit, right?

Bush has an interesting attitude toward his kids interest in music. Admittedly they have access to instruments, equipment (and people), that their peers don’t have. “They also see it as an acceptable career path,” Bush says.

But wait? Does that mean that music wasn’t an acceptable option for the Bush brothers? (Kristian’s brother Brandon was a member of the multi-platinum-selling rock band Train, and has performed with John Mayer, Sugarland and Shawn Mullins.) “We were a food family. We grew up in a small town, mountain enclosure, in Sevierville, TN. Our fate was to run the family business. Everyone else worked in the cannery. You could have hobbies, but the cannery machines were pretty space-shuttle-esque …”

Despite the assumed baked bean path, there was always music in the house. In fact, at age three, Bush’s mom would drive him to the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville once a week for music lessons, specifically the Suzuki Method. Taught by ear alone, this method follows the idea that children can learn music as a language if it was taught when their primary language skills were being developed. And so it began, with violin in hand. And it remained until his mid-teens when Bush had a musical awakening and bartered with his Mom to switch to guitar.

That eureka moment came when Bush first discovered college radio. Sevierville was in a valley, so good radio was something of a misnomer, but he soon found that when tuning in for Tennessee basketball scores, there was music too. Music he had never heard – like REM and The Clash. “Alternative music, it blew my mind. I’d been listening to a.m. radio and my parents’ record collection ‘til then. Now I knew I needed a guitar.”

“I was picked on in middle school, definitely not cool, not getting any girls. So my Mom made a deal with me. If I played one year in the youth symphony, I could get a guitar.” Challenge accepted, but Bush was terrified. He learned music by ear, thus he didn’t know how to read sheet music as the rest of the symphony kids did. So, he’d go to practice every Wednesday and record the rehearsal with his Sony Walkman. Go home, learn it by listening and perform on Saturday. For a year. And, alas he got his guitar. “It only took me five lessons to figure out the guitar. If it has strings, give me an hour and I can play it,” Bush quips.[vc_single_image image="6339" img_size="full" css=".vc_custom_1471870311918{padding-top: 10px !important;padding-bottom: 10px !important;}"]

“There came a time when I realized that there were too many guitar players, so I switched to mandolin… I’m really terrible at things you blow into.”

So, when does a tween, with a guitar, decide music might be his career? “I was alive at a particular time in technology, in the early 80s, where there was a movement to bring recording equipment into your home and keep the hobby alive.”

He made his first record at 13, when he received one hour in a Knoxville recording studio as a Christmas gift. He’s made 37 more in the 30 years since. So, you might say he knows a thing or two about the secret sauce of record-making. (Not to be confused with the Bush’s Baked Bean secret recipe which I will take to my grave!)

“Of course there is a formula for the perfect record. First, you have to respect the listener. People are usually listening in 40-60 minute blocks while driving, running, or preparing their Friday or Saturday night meal.” (Is he following me?) “They’re looking for their mojo…”

To Bush an album is a body of work. Each unique in the story it tells, but each pieced together in a similar fashion to hook the audience, make them feel something, and ensure that they play it again. “You get your first song for free. But, if they don’t like it they’re not going to hang in there …”

Despite the move from vinyl to cassette to CD to iTunes, Bush still creates an album with a side one and two in his mind. Two complete thoughts. “Side one was always longer, remember how you’d always have extra tape on side two of a cassette?,” he said with a chuckle.

I’m told, the first song is the song you open your shows with, it defines the album, the tour. Second or third song is your single -- it’s going to be the biggest hit. Song five closes out side one or your first set. And, song six starts a new story. The last song – this is poignant. It points to where the next album is going and hints to the first song on that next album. So, putting together an album is part science and part art? “Oh yeah, we geek out on it,” Bush said.

Clearly Bush feels strongly about the process. And now I feel guilty for hitting shuffle when I listen to music. Even the Sugarland station on Pandora now feels like a sin. Half way through my apology, Bush interrupts me to simply say, “Respect the producer. Don’t use the shuffle button. It’s like eating food in the wrong order or reading the middle of a book before chapter one.”

Ok, ok. I’ll do it his way for now on, when driving, running, and cooking Saturday supper. Promise.

Music isn’t always easy. And there wasn’t really a point where Bush didn’t think music was the path. He stayed true to his passion. His college graduation present was a check for $3000 from his Dad. His plan: to play music until the money ran out. He had a record deal before that ever happened. Why? Well, according to Bush, “Hard work will outpace talent every time. Every vocation rewards the people who work hard and are nice.”

And a nice guy he is.

Photography by Bonjwing Lee