"Well I Heard Steve Earle had lots of wives/ about as many as cats have lives/ met em on his records and we're good friends/ he writes a song for everyone/ they fall in love and before it's done/ he writes an even better one when it ends/ well I won't have to take your name and you won't have to take the blame." - Steve Earle - Jennifer Nettles-Kristian Bush

When superstar duo Sugarland toured here in March it played venues diverse as the Snowy Mountains festival at Thredbo and others at Fremantle and Byron Bay en route to the Northcote Social Club.

With its first two albums' sales nudging five million the Atlanta star duo road tested songs from the just finished third disc.

But not the ditty that would have earned writers Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush a rousing reception.

Yes, Steve Earle - a wry celebration of the outlaw singer's seven marriages - was left at the altar.

It's not clear what the uber cool Earle thinks of the plea by Nettles to write her a song as his next singing spouse.

Maybe he would baulk at the caveat - "a really small wedding, only about 300 people/ did I tell you I have kids, you're gonna love them/ they're gonna need to go to college."

But the duo, unlike many mainstream artists, recorded their album in Atlanta - not Nashville.

Nettles and Bush co-produced the disc with Byron Gallimore - known for his work with Jo Dee Messina, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, John Michael Montgomery, Julie Roberts and Phil Vassar.

Bush shares vocals with Nettles and plays acoustic guitar and mandolin on a disc that also features members of the road band.

Brother Brandon plays organ, piano and accordion and road bassist Annie Clements features on backing vocals on a disc featuring veteran session serf Dan Dugmore on pedal steel, electric and 12 string acoustic guitar.

Sugarland is at the opposite spectrum of country music to Earle with its country rock anthems pitched at mainstream radio and stadium-arena audiences the Texan long ago rejected.

But, by using Atlanta - not Nashville as its launch pad and writing all songs - it joined latter day New Yorker Earle as a geographical outsider.

But that's where the similarities end.


"What if I spoke up/ what if I took your keys/ what if I had tried a little harder/ instead of trying to please" - Joey - Jennifer Nettles-Kristian Bush-Bill Anderson

Sugarland aims squarely at the youth market from hedonistic entrée All I Want To Do and quasi-rebellious It Happens where the character's borrowed Cadillac rear-ends a memory in a pick-up truck.

But the fate of the driver in the vehicular mayhem of Joey - penned with the legendary Bill Anderson - is left open ended, which could be a worse than being rear ended.

The theme of the song dates back to the classic fifties teen tragedy tunes where death looms in reality or maybe as a mere metaphor.

But Sugarland covers plenty of territory - not just geographical, romantic and time travel - in its vibrant vignettes.

Nettles explores her Georgia clay rural river roots in Genevieve where she adopts the male persona - "the whole thing seems like Einstein's dreams/ see the smoke, start to shiver/ I'd do anything just to forget her."

And she recalls her not so mythical single mama's advice in anthemic Already Gone where her character leaves home with all pistons firing in a second hand Mercury and repeats mama's mistakes just a generation later.


But it's a vastly different role in Take Me As I Am where her character rises above menial toil of a motel cleaner.

"I know these corners, I know these streets/ the curb-side prophet there yelling at me/ he can save my soul for a drink and a dollar/ yeah, he's yelling about my tattoo/ but we all live with the scars we choose/ they might hurt like hell, but they all make us stronger."

Those tunes break the mould of generic love lava that flows from turbo tonking tunes We Run (new romance), Love, healing of Keep You and regret of What'd I Give.

Perhaps the album's finale Very Last Country Song, penned with Tim Owens, is also the album pinnacle.

The narrator reaches into history to mine the motherlode of faded love that could have been perfect if it had boomeranged to its idealistic birth.

"But if life stayed the way it was/ and lovers never fell out of love/ if memories didn't last so long/ if nobody did nobody wrong/ if we knew what we had before it was gone/ if every road would lead back home/ this would be the very last country song."

Sugarland may seem too saccharine for those out on country's cutting edge but this is spicy soul food with icing.

And, in its own way, Sugarland bends those boundaries even further with tunes that cover diverse emotions and subjects.

Nettles has an impassioned vocal style that begs to be soaked up and heard.

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