Earlier this year, Sugarland’s Kristian Bush was flying to New York to write some songs with his duo partner, Jennifer Nettles. On the plane, he settled in with a newspaper — but when he started reading an article about gun violence, it was so upsetting that he had to stop. He stuffed the paper into the seat pocket in front of him.
“I can’t be looking at this,” Bush recalls thinking, “I’m going to write Sugarland songs today.”
When the popular duo first started dominating the country charts in the early 2000s, “Sugarland songs” usually meant upbeat, infectious, energy-packed hits, occasionally infused with quirky lyrics and production. Then Nettles and Bush took a five-year break to embark on solo projects. And when they reconvened to make new music in 2017, they returned to an extremely different climate.
While many Nashville artists refuse to discuss current events, emphasizing that their priority is to entertain, the duo — already known for being progressive — realized they could use this new era of Sugarland to do both.
“These days we all feel small, my friend/It’s getting harder and harder to hold our heads up high,” Nettles sings on the soaring opening title track of their sixth studio album, “Bigger,” released last month. “Baby, let’s circle the wagons, show all the dragons they don’t own the sky.”
“This world is crazy right now. . . it’s painful personally, and it’s scary in ways we haven’t experienced before as a country,” Nettles said in a phone interview a few weeks before their headlining tour arrives at Merriweather Post Pavilion. She added, “One of the things that music does so very well is to really help us during these times. Art really leads the way to help us process all this emotional stuff.”
While their new album includes radio-friendly, roll-down-your-windows songs (the delightfully catchy “Babe,” featuring Taylor Swift, or “Still the Same,” their comeback single), it also includes tracks with deeper messages.
Nettles and Bush, who co-wrote 10 out of 11 songs on the project, got to work soon after Bush stepped off the plane in New York. Still thinking about gun violence, Bush read some lines he had scribbled down, namely: How does he explain this topic to his kids? Nettles had recently read an article about civil rights activist Ruby Sales, who said the question that people need to ask each other is, “Where does it hurt?”
As a result, the standout ballad “Tuesday’s Broken” was born, and it addresses school shootings right off the bat: “Yesterday, hell rained down/Another kid, another school in another town/I think about how to tell my son/And I think about how that one got a gun.” It segues into a person being driven to the edge by bullying: “What if we looked in her eyes and asked ‘Where does it hurt?’/Would she find all she was worth?”
Similarly striking songs touch on broader themes, such as “Mother,” in which a parent accepts a child no matter who that child loves, and “Bird in a Cage,” about people who feel trapped for a multitude of reasons.
The duo hopes people listen to the full scope of the album; although songs like “Tuesday’s Broken” might be considered “polarizing” because of the subject matter, they said, the majority of reactions on social media have been very positive.
“Art is supposed to be provocative and be polarizing, and at the same time, it is also a bridge,” Nettles said. “We need all these truths right now. People really need to hear it.”
Of course, their current tour still tackles all their crowd-favorite hits, from “Baby Girl” and “Something More” to “Stuck Like Glue” and “All I Want to Do.” There’s a reason it’s called the Still the Same Tour — that was the first song they wrote together after the hiatus, when they wanted to see whether they still had the same Sugarland chemistry. And they did.
“I think some of the things that we learned, both because of our time apart and during our time apart, was that there are things we can do together as Sugarland that we can’t do on our own, and there are things we can do on our own that we can’t do as Sugarland,” Nettles said. “It’s just helpful as an artist in general to recognize those pieces of ourselves. And that there is something specific whenever we come together that’s bigger — no pun intended, name of the album — than the sum of its parts.”
Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md.
Date: Saturday at 7:30 p.m.