The Wholesome Thrills of Small-Town Porn

Sugarland's tales of red-state grandeur resonate even if you've never made a casserole

There's an appealing dissonance to seeing hat-country concerts in New York City: All those we-gotta-get-outta-this-small-town anthems inspiring whoops and fist-pumps from citizens of the biggest, baddest town on earth. Songs about the race, sung from the finish line, enjoyed by city slickers who maybe never had to run it in the first place.

Not that we can't relate to bellowing Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles and her insatiable appetite for escape. "This is a song about that place you used to go when you were in high school that you thought the cops didn't know about!" she announces as the boys launch into the peppy young-lust rocker "County Line"; she's describing "cherry bombs and cherry wine," "kettle corn and 4-H fairs," but we're free to imagine, oh, say, beer-swilling Union Square skate punks. "This is a song about heading to the casinos of Mississippi for a girls' weekend!" she announces as the boys launch into the peppy thirtysomething-lust rocker "Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good)"; we're free to imagine, oh, say, Mohegan Sun.

These are indeed universal feelings: "No one is happy where they are," Linus once sagely noted in a Peanuts strip, watching a leaf fall off a tree. But there's dissonance all the same. "We got some country fans in New York City!" marveled Karen Fairchild of angelic- harmony opening act Little Big Town (see?), surveying the sold-out Nokia Theater crowd Wednesday night. "Looks like we need to get a country-music station in this town!" (There's nothing more Southern than still caring about radio.) The notion of NYC as a country town is profoundly odd—road-trip ballads for subway dwellers, etc. "Such a beautiful place you have!" Jennifer cooed. (Sugarland is from Atlanta; Jennifer is big on chatty stage banter.) "I've been walking around all day saying, 'I'm gonna buy a place here.' We could be neighbors! I would bring you a casserole! Do you know what a casserole is?"

Pouring some sugar on you
David Atlas
Pouring some sugar on you

Then again, Sugarland's sound and appeal isn't exactly exotic: It's basically "Walking on Sunshine" + "Livin' on a Prayer" filtered through Jennifer's sharp, twangy, relentless drawl, our heroine cheerfully battling against various societal woes (small-town oppression, feckless lovers, bills, Mondays, floods) with robust and resourceful aplomb. Whether her sentiment is "Fuck that guy" or "Fuck that guy," her infectious bombast out-blares every billboard in Times Square. She's a powerful singer, but not in that scorched-earth, bomb-shelter Carrie Underwood sort of way; most Sugarland tracks build to a long, booming, cathartic high note in the bridge or the last verse or the last chorus, but it's the stuff of great karaoke, not gaudy Vegas napalm assault.

Sugarland started as a trio and is now a duo—Jennifer's lesser half is Mr. Kristian Bush, who provides occasional vocal harmony but in concert mostly spins around a lot and wantonly strums his instrument four to five times harder than is really advisable. Together, they pried the Best Vocal Duo trophy from the cold, dead hands of the absurdly dominant Brooks & Dunn at early November's Country Music Association Awards, and then knocked everyone else dead with "Stay," Sugarland's one moment of chest-beating melodrama. It's a scenery-chewing ballad almost identical to that cheesy Lonestar smash "I'm Already There," the one where the rock-star dude rings in from the road and passionately assures his wife and kids he really misses them, he'll be home soon, etc. (Bah. It's the corn-country "Beth" but even less sincere—picture him blubbering in a phone booth filled with loose women and cocaine.) With "Stay," Jennifer retains the corn but restores some sense of dignity: Entreating some two-timing chump, she first begs him to stay in her own bed, but in the end advises he stay in the other woman's instead.

This is pure cheese, yes, but it's universally appealing cheese, the kind that can resonate whether you live in Alabama or Queens. For most of the Nokia show, a full raucous electric band rumbles behind Jennifer with such jovial enthusiasm that you're inclined to describe her lyrical sentiments as "warm and familiar" rather than the more cynical "clichéd." Both of Sugarland's major-label albums kick off with politely-mad-as-hell anthems: "There's gotta be something more" from 2004's Twice the Speed of Life becomes "I ain't settlin'" on last year's Enjoy the Ride. "Everyday America" describes exactly that between whoa-oh's. You'll never guess what "April Showers" bring. And "Small Town Jericho" rhapsodizes the one-horse-town lifestyle exactly the same way crack-rap supposedly fetishizes the ghetto:

And every road here looks the same
This ol' town won't ever change
And that's what I love the most
And it's the reason I must go

You can get behind this even if you've never set foot in a small town, or stayed long enough to want to leave it. And if you can't, well, Sugarland does a pretty mean cover of Beyoncé's "Irreplacable," which inspired crazed cackling from the girls-night-out masses in the Nokia bleachers from the very first "To the left, to the left." And for a grand finale, Jennifer led a rowdy gala sing-along of "Pour Some Sugar on Me."

Oh, yes. Nothing unifies America like British hair metal. Even the opening acts jumped onstage for this, including Little Big Town, whose originals sound more like Fleetwood Mac than their straight covers of Fleetwood Mac, and who broke out with a tune called "Boondocks," as in "I feel no shame/I'm proud of where I came from/I was born and raised in the boondocks." This sentiment was warmly received. Maybe the whole Nokia crowd was boondocks escapees, Southern transplants who now converge on a Times Square that's changed as dramatically as their hometowns allegedly haven't. Or maybe for a couple of hours the boondocks just sound like a nice place to go, and a nice place to sing about leaving behind.

 
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