Kristian Bush parallels real life on his new album “Troubadour”
Kristian Bush has made a career out of saying “yes” to every opportunity that presented itself. Best known as one half of multi-platinum country duo Sugarland, the Atlanta native’s career dates back to the early ’90s with folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim.
His latest solo effort, Troubadour, born of unlikely circumstances. The 16-song collection is the soundtrack to a musical of the same name, which debuted at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in 2017. The production, set in 1951, centers on Billy Mason, a fictional country star on the verge of retirement.
When playwright Janece Shaffer asked Bush to write a song for a character in one of her upcoming plays, Bush had just completed her solo debut in 2015. Southern Gravity and was ready for his next challenge.
His song, “Father to the Son”, launched this album project. The mid-tempo track introduces a family dynamic between Mason and his son, Joe, who is also a musician. The gospel-tinged tune opened up old wounds in Bush’s personal history, writing at a similar distance from his own father who planned for Bush to join the family’s canned baked bean business. Simplistic lyrics include what a son hopes to hear from a fatherly voice.
Noting parallels, Bush told the American songwriter, “I’ve done that myself in my own career; I made songs that were just wishes: what I wish my parents had told me or I want a girl to like me like that.
When asked how writing a song turned into creating a full soundtrack and solo album, Bush laughs and says, “This becomes the story of my life.”
For the Sevierville, Tennessee native, that meant returning to his deep Appalachian roots to rediscover himself with his early influences. Following the play’s timeline, the soundtrack lists country music from the 1930s to the 1950s.
In his extensive research of the period, Bush found himself particularly drawn to the early 1930s. “I found there was a lot of music that sounded like it belonged in the church,” Bush says. This realization brought him home to the sounds of his upbringing in East Tennessee. “Sacred music and secular music are really interesting; And in the mountains, there is no difference.
Drawing on the genre’s deep Gospel roots, the soundtrack begins with traditional 1930s bluegrass and progresses through the decades to an evolved American sound.
The piece, and in turn, the album, became an ode to the songwriting of yesteryear.
“When I was listening to all this music, people were just trying to make a living,” he explains. “But they weren’t as fierce as they are now; they did their best just to make money. We didn’t tell these people that they were making art. Today it’s something we all enjoy, but back then it was just poor people’s music.
Bush chose to record the album live in a room with his brother and co-producer Brandon Bush, with friend and frequent collaborator Benji Shanks (Blackberry Smoke) on guitar, and Leah Calvert and Levi Lowry on fiddle and mandolin. .
The recording experience, he says, captured the spirit of the music Bush was raised on. Although written for specific characters that Schaffer created for this play, the 16 songs of Troubadour feel deeply personal to Bush at this point in his personal life and career. The soundtrack to this story allowed the artist to further shape his distinctive art of storytelling by deeply considering fundamental influences from his decades-long career.
“I start having this weird feeling when I wake up, but there aren’t enough days left to write all the songs I need,” Bush says. “It’s a weird feeling, and I’m only 50.”
American composer: How did you get into the character or the headspace you needed to write songs that fit into the context of the story?
Christian Bush: Rather than having to retool myself for acting, I found that my songwriting process is really the same process I use all the time.
Think about the timing on this. It would have been in development in 2016, on stage in 2017. So I had been told two years before that this giant band that I had built from the ground up, for which I had written every song, had just decided not to not continue – for no explanation from my partner, other than “I want to try this on my own”. I had two school-age kids and a divorce, so I was like, ‘Wow, I know exactly how it feels to be forced to not be able to do what you love anymore.’ So it wasn’t that hard to get into character. The hardest part was trying not to make it about me.
LIKE: Do you find the process of writing soundtracks for plays easier or more difficult than co-writing songs for records and other artists?
KB: I’m in the middle of my third musical right now, and the director and playwright orders are coming in at lightning speed, and they’re very detailed. But when you do it for theater like this, you can write three or four songs for them to pick one. And when you co-write, you’re going to write what you write that day, there’s no other version. And what’s great is that sometimes when you have that many minds pushing on something, you’re able to sort out the two or three versions that won’t work any faster. So I think it’s a slower process, but it’s also a more direct process. I spend more time polishing co-writes than polishing solo writings. They are two completely different processes.
LIKE: When did the “Troubadour” process appear? What about the song or the context that qualified it as the title track of both the play and then the album?
KB: Janece asked me to write the song which is the last song of the father before he retires. And I was like, sure, but that’s a weird question. And she said: Why? And I said, Well, if it was Sugarland, we should play “Baby Girl” – our biggest hit, it was our first child. So what you’re asking me to do is write a song from 1935, for example? Because that was around the time of the biggest hit of this guy. And she was like, ‘Yeah.’ So I said, “Cool, tell me about his life,” like I would if I was writing a song for an artist.
As a playwright, she knew the whole story of the father. She had an answer to every question I asked. I literally wrote the song at the breakfast table while we were talking.
‘Troubador’ is the song that scares me the most because it’s totally me. Once you’re gone, that’s it. They might remember your name or your heritage, but if you wrote a really good song, they totally remember your song.
When you hear something on the radio for the first time, you don’t say, “Oh my God, that’s my favorite singer. You say, ‘Oh my God, that’s my favorite song.’ It only works if the song works. And that’s how I got here. I think that’s why I got so much encouragement to release this music, just me singing the songs.
So I said ‘Let’s try it.’ And I heard it back and I was like, ‘Oh man, I love these songs.’
LIKE: What was your thought process behind producing and recruiting musicians to record this with you?
KB: We knew we didn’t want to be too forgiving with the authenticity of the microphones or the recording techniques. We just wanted to take the moment of ‘What happens when you put it all in one room?’ And that in itself is a recording technique. You sit and play at the same time. There are no clicks, no constraints. And then you kind of know, in three or four minutes, whether it was a good release or not. You’re not really building a house in pieces; you fly it away immediately. Sure. And it’s great fun. It also means that you are simply who you are on that day.
LIKE: How do you think this process made the album feel like a reminiscence of the music’s era and origins?
KB: There is a certain affinity with what has seeped into our bones as mountain music, which is slightly different from bluegrass. Bluegrass seems to suggest there is a little more polish or skill. It looks very mountainous to me. And I’m from Sevierville, which is literally this Mountain. I’m still surprised that a lot of the music that comes out of it that’s root-focused isn’t aggressive, perfect bluegrass. Something weird happens when you start putting drones on the music – those notes that don’t stop. And that’s if you sing it, or if you play it on a dulcimer or a mandolin – there’s just something about it, it makes me feel like it’s somewhere between church and not l ‘church.
Sacred music and secular music are really interesting; And in the mountains, there is no difference. Whenever I pick up an instrument to learn for the first time, the first thing I understand is ‘how do I play “Amazing Grace” on it? Well, now I know my way.
It’s just where I grew up; I only know four or five songs. That’s why I was so obsessed with The Clash and Adam and the Ants, and everything that got me down that path that got me to a place where I could re-enter country music with this hodgepodge of Atlanta musicians. I was the countryiest thing in Sugarland. Jennifer was in Ani DeFranco. And as we began to find our way back to those kinds of roots, we found a lot of comfort there. And I think Troubadour—the album—does the same thing. That’s almost what I have to do before moving on. You have to know where you come from before you know where you are going.
to listen Troubadour here :