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Sweet success: with her country band, Sugarland, poised to become a household word, out artist Kristen Hall is pickin' on top of the world.

"I don't know how Tori Amos does it," says out singer-songwriter-guitarist Kristen Hall, speaking of Amos's wrenchingly personal songs. "I understand what it takes to dredge that up every night, and it's like, E-e-ew! Sugarland couldn't be further away from that. We're not dredging up anything--except joy--and that's completely by design."

Atlanta-based Sugarland is a buoyant country music trio that Hall, 42, formed three years ago with fellow musician-songwriters Kristian Bush, 34, and Jennifer Nettles, 30. Its first album, Twice the Speed of Life, and single, "Baby Girl," are riding high on the Billboard country charts and even have hung around the pop top 40, with a second single, "Something More," just breaking.

Although Hall, Bush, and Nettles are all Southerners by choice or birth, none had performed purely country music before Sugarland. But when Bush (from Dolly Patron's hometown, Sevierville, Tenn.) and Hall (born near Detroit but now an Atlanta transplant) started writing together in 2002, the two almost blushingly confessed they were closet country lovers. "We're both from staunch rock-and-roll backgrounds," says Bush, who cut two albums in the '90s as a member of the Atlanta folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim, a sort of Indigo Boys. "But we're both from the South, and [country] counts."

In Douglas, Ga.-born Nettles, who had been fronting her own Atlanta bands, the pair found their equivalent to Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks--a powerhouse lead who could propel them out of smaller halls and into arenas. Says Hall: "I'd kind of polled a few people whose ears I trusted--'Who's the superstar in this town who just isn't singing the right song yet?' Unanimously, they said Jennifer Nettles. The first time she sang the songs we'd written, all the hair on my arm stood up." Almost immediately the three were cowriting and then onstage together, Nettles at the main mike with Bush and Hall backing her on guitar, mandolin, and harmonies.

Hall's the only gay member of the trio, but all three brought an enthusiastic lesbian audience to Sugarland. Bush's band Billy Pilgrim opened for Melissa Etheridge during her tour for the album Yes I Am. Nettles has always drawn gay women to her shows, ever since her early days performing while still attending a women's university, Agnes Scott College, in Atlanta. "Also, it was the aftermath of Indigo Girls time, and I had an alto voice and played angry songs on an acoustic guitar--girl power, you know," she says, laughing. "I always felt very comfortable with a diverse fan base."

Hall, who's currently single (Bush and Nettles each are married), has a longtime connection with Atlanta's gay community, beginning with her job in the early 1980s at the local gay men's newspaper Metropolitan Gazette. One of her first assignments was to photograph "Slaves' Night Out" at a local men's bar: "A guy comes up to me with his boyfriend on a leash and says, 'Honey, can you hold him while I get a drink?'" she recalls with her husky laugh.

Hall was then mentored by the Indigo Girls, who played at their concerts the first song she'd ever completed, hired her as their guitar tech, and encouraged her past her stage fright into becoming their opening act. She recorded seven solo albums and became a successful songwriter as well, especially after Amanda Marshall had a worldwide hit with Hall's "Let It Rain." That brought her a songwriting contract in Los Angeles, where she lived for five years.

"I've had a charmed career, there's no doubt about it," says Hall. But these days she's creating her own charm. "When we started Sugarland I was 40 years old. I just kind of felt like, We're going to swing for the fences, or forget it," she says. "Because time's ticking here. People used to ask me how to break in, and I'd say, 'Honest to God, I don't know, because it literally fell in my lap.'

"Now if someone asked me, I'd say, 'Aim high.' It really helps you get where you're going. We set a goal that we want to be playing arenas in three years, and we're nearly there."

Kort is author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro.
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Title Annotation:MUSIC
Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 21, 2005
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