“It is something that I am extremely proud , and it is something that I am very capable ,” Nettles says bringing her pro-LGBTQ message to a more conservative fan base.
Country superstar Jennifer Nettles has never been one to keep quiet about her opinions. Whether it was her out-and-out support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, or her continuing discussion the gender disparity in country music, Nettles is a rare liberal voice in a genre that ten feels dominated by conservative ideas.
But the Sugarland frontwoman says that she’s through viewing the country music industry through a political paradigm and is instead interested in getting her fans to examine their inner selves. “We'll worry later about how to categorize these things and affect policy,” she tells Billboard the atmosphere her concerts. “Vote your heart, but before you get there, you need to examine and talk about your heart for a minute.”
When Sugarland started performing a cover folk singer Patty Griffin's “Tony” last month, audiences were caught by surprise. For a band whose music is typically upbeat, fun, and occasionally emotional, “Tony” was a change pace; the blistering, discomforting song follows the true story one Griffin's queer high school classmates who committed suicide as a teenager.
Nettles says that she and bandmate Kristian Bush had been on the road, discussing their own separate feelings about Griffin's track, before it dawned on them that June was the perfect time for them to cover it. “What better time to do this song if we wanted to do it than during Pride month to raise awareness and have a moment?” she asked. “And it has really turned into that.”
In a live video released by the group, Nettles and Bush perform under the pseudonym “Sugarl&,” with a title card explaining “& = Everyone belongs here. Including you & you & you & you.” The duo power through the emotionally-caustic song, while a number statistics (which Nettles says were provided by the Human Rights Campaign) flash across the Jumbotron behind them. “LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to consider suicide,” one fact reads.
“Why don't we use this as an opportunity to raise awareness within communities and people who might not know and might not consider LGBTQ people?” Nettles says she asked herself when approaching the performance.
Part what makes the song so difficult to hear is the repeated use a homophobic slur (“He looked in the mirror, saw that little faggot staring back at him” Griffin sings in the original) to describe a suicidal teenager. But Nettles says that despite how hard it may be for her to sing that word, it was important to keep the song as is so the audience could feel confronted by the harsh reality gay teen suicide.
“It's there to confront you and say, ‘This is what Tony heard, and what he saw in himself consequently when he looked in the mirror,’” Nettles says. “Art has different purposes; all it is to inspire, but sometimes it does that through provocation. This is a provoking song.”
This particular cover isn’t the first time in the past few months that Sugarland has confronted these specific social issues. With the release their newest album, Bigger, last month, the duo tackled politically poignant issues including gun violence, cyber bullying, homophobia and more with tracks such as “Tuesday’s Broken” and “Mother.”
Nettles recognizes the risk in voicing her opinions on such polarizing topics, knowing it only emboldens her desire to foster an honest connection between her fans and her message. “It is something that I am extremely proud , and it is something that I am very capable ,” she says. “At the end the day, look … what a fantastic opportunity, what a unique position that I and the rest Sugarland find ourselves in!”
The singer is referencing the specific demographic that her band’s music speaks to. While Sugarland’s music certainly appeals to young audiences, their core fan base lies among fans who are in the same generation as 43-year-old Nettles. While young country stars, like Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and Cam, can speak directly to a young audience that grew up in a more accepting society, Sugarland and their peers find themselves in the unique position bringing messages queer acceptance to an audience that otherwise may not be hearing them.
“You don't want to preach to the choir, you know what I mean?” Nettles asks. “That is not the case within our demographic … I take it very seriously, too. Because I think that we're able to do that, and that I am uniquely qualified to do it in a way that opens hearts rather than closes doors. That is what we need right now.”
The country industry has made a slow shift towards acceptance, with established names like Luke Bryan and Little Big Town openly supporting the LGBTQ community in their music. Nettles recognizes that the industry still has a very long way to go in terms acceptance, but she hopes other artists recognize that audiences are not only okay with hearing these messages, but they sincerely hope for them.
“The reactions that we get on this song whenever we play it, and even just in introducing it … people feel seen and supported and welcomed,” she says. “I've got chillbumps just thinking about it right now. It is absolutely life-giving to do.”