Jennifer Nettles, left, and Kristian Bush of the country duo Sugarland. | AP

Country duo Sugarland found they had a lot to say after a five-year hiatus

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When the Grammy-winning country duo Sugarland went back to the studio after a five-year hiatus, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush had a big secret to keep under wraps.

Taylor Swift, who shares the same Nashville-based Big Machine Records label with Sugarland, not only offered them a song she co-wrote but even wanted to sing harmony with them.

“That stuff was on lockdown,” Nettles jokes of the collaboration called “Babe.”

Bush says the recording wouldn’t have been released if they didn’t get her approval. “If she didn’t like it, then we weren’t going to tell anybody,” Bush says.

Sugarland and Swift broke out in Nashville around the same time, in the early 2000s, both riding the wave of emotion-driven country pop and big live productions.

After five studio albums, a prime-time TV special and two Grammy Awards, Sugarland announced a hiatus in 2012 as Nettles welcomed her first child, Magnus. During the break, they explored other musical roots, with Nettles acting on Broadway and on TV and Bush working as a record producer.

Last year, they found themselves back in the studio, working on their first single in years — “Still the Same.”

“We just had so much to say,” Nettles says.

What came out of that was “Bigger,” their new album, to be released June 8, and a new tour that will bring them to the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park on Aug. 23.

They joke that, while they were away, the genre passed through its bro-country movement. But a lot has changed in the American landscape that the two songwriters wanted to address. The new music is uplifting and interwoven with subtle nods to equality, the #MeToo movement, feelings of isolation and fear, bullying and gun violence.

The two spoke with The Associated Press in Nashville:

AP: Is there a balance with the messages you weave into these songs?

Nettles: It’s pretty simple because, if you want to engage people, the best way to not do that is yell at them and make them feel bad about themselves . . . The best way to do it is to offer them a conversation in a way that might open them up — and what a wonderful way to open people up through music.

AP: The strongest message on this album is a song called “Tuesday’s Gone” about school shootings and bullying. Did you struggle with how to write this?

Bush: I was coming to visit Jennifer to write, and I’d seen the newspaper in the back of the airplane, you know, and it was a school shooting that was in the northeast. And I just folded it up and put it back. I’m going to write Sugarland songs. I can’t look at this. But I had to get it out. So I put it in my phone, and I walked in the door and Jennifer is, like, “How are you feeling? What are you doing? What’s on your mind? What’s on your heart?” And I was, like, “Oh, you’re not [going to]like this, but we can’t write this.’ And she’s, like, “Oh, yeah? That’s pretty awesome. Send that to me.”

Nettles: And it’s super anthemic, too, because I had read this beautiful article about Ruby Sales. She’s a civil rights activist, and she has an amazing story. But, in it, she talked about really the question that we need, the human question that we need to ask each other is: “Where does it hurt?”

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