What It Feels Like To Win Country's Songwriting Triple Crown

You keep telling me, baby, there will come a time/When all the songwriting trophies will forever be mine. (Susan Biddle/TWP file)

Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles is one of contemporary country's most prominent power belters, with a distinctive, dynamic voice that's big, brassy, super-emotive and twangier than a Tennessee trucker.

But as it turns out, Nettles can also write a little bit, too, having authored, among other songs, Sugarland's indelible hit, "Stay," which won song of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards and then, just this month, best country song at the Grammys.

"Stay" is a gut-wrenching story-song about infidelity and betrayal, written from the POV of The Other Woman. (Not autobiographical, Nettles insists.) In recorded form, it consists of some faint organ; the acoustic guitar work of Sugarland's other half, Kristian Bush; and, of course, the gutsy belting of Nettles, who called to discuss the award-winning work.

So, Jennifer Nettles: How does it feel to win country's songwriting triple crown?

"The trifecta! It's crazy and thrilling. I can not believe the gifts over and above that song has given me. The Grammy is the highest honor in music that we can receive, outside of having fans come and watch you every night and clap. That song has been such a gift. To have people really respond to it all the way up to the Grammys is very exciting.

"Many times, not only a casual listener but even a conditioned listener will hear someone who has a distinctive voice and has [been] heard around a lot, and they'll tend to feel that it must be all that this person does. It's limiting, even if it's something that's not done consciously. Especially in country music, people are accustomed to seeing artists who aren't songwriters, because there's such a songwriting system in Nashville. But really, for my whole career, I've been a singer-slash-songwriter, even though I'm very thankfully known for my voice. Songwriting has always been a joy in my life, and to be recognized for it is extremely validating."

(Read the rest of the interview after the jump.)

"When I was writing the song, it felt good, but I didn't really analyze it. When you're in creation mode, there's a flow -- a bit of a dance and a rhythm. However, when I was done with it, and I was sitting back and playing it back, I thought, OK, this has something. I thought it was really special. It had a wonderful moment of redemption and it was a twist on a classic story. It was fresh and new. Now, that wasn't the intent when I started writing it. The intent was, hey, I want to express another side rather than rehashing the same old thing, and see how that feels emotionally. The fact that it resonated with people the way it did, that was a surprise.

"I feel very grateful that I have never had to be or ever chosen to be or accidentally found myself to be in the space of the other woman. But I think we can all relate to the concept of being in a place in our life that isn't the healthiest for us and having to make a hard decision that isn't easy, even if it's the best decision for us, and having to experience a loss that comes from making that healthy decision.

"I think it's true to the human condition of understanding and loss, but also to the rawness and vulnerability of being fallible. We make mistakes that not only hurt ourselves, but hurt other people. We many times sell ourselves short, not only in relationships but throughout our own lives. Hopefully, we come around at some point and realize our own value. Being able to have that moment in the song where she comes around and says this is very very painful but I am worth more than this -- I think everybody has either experienced that moment or craved that moment.

"I wrote the song sitting on my couch, just an acoustic guitar and voice. It fit very well in that instrumentation. But for the sake of the old studio try, we thought: Does it need something else? Does it need some percussion? What should we try? Immediately, it was pretty clear with each element that we tried to add in that it didn't serve the song. That's the most important thing when you're in the studio or figuring out how to perform a song live: What best serves the song.

"This is such an emotional song. It's all about being able to hear those lyrics and being able to understand them so that you can get the impact of the whole song. This is a crazy, emotional, dramatic song about a dramatic story in a person's life that is condensed down to four minutes. It's a pretty dense - from concentrate! - snapshot, so we wanted to be able to focus in on the emotion of that and not have anything get in the way of the emotional delivery of the vocal.

"All the accolades and all the awards would lead one to believe that this is the best song that I've ever written. And in some ways, it absolutely is. But we write songs for different reasons. Some of them, we write for celebration and for fun. Some of them, we write to try to connect with other people on a human level. And some of them, we selfishly write for emotional purging and as our own form of therapy. So I don't know. There's a good chance that it could be one of the best that I've written, but it's hard to choose among those things.

"But I hope that it's not the best song that I'll ever write. A couple of years ago, we were out on tour with Brooks and Dunn, and as a parting gift at the end of the tour, we gave them these rings, and on them, there was etched a quote that says, 'The sweetest song has yet to be sung.' I hope that the sweetest song has yet to be written."

(Note: This interview has been condensed, sans ellipses.)

By J. Freedom du Lac |  February 18, 2009; 8:28 AM ET Awards , Interviews , What It Feels Like To ...
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