After all, once you’re part of a Grammy-winning duo that has sold millions of albums, what more could you ask for? That’s certainly the thinking with a certain set in country music, which can get territorial with its stars. It was one thing when Nettles, 48, embarked on solo projects more than a decade after conquering Nashville with her Sugarland duo partner, Kristian Bush. It was quite another thing when Nettles decided she wanted to try acting. And Broadway. And reality TV.
“It’s hard when you feel like, okay I’ll branch out here, I’ll go solo there, I’ll do this here. And some people still say, “One half of country duo Sugarland!” Nettles said, imitating a deep broadcaster’s voice. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I love that. But guys, I’ve done so many other things.’”
In an ideal world, Nettles’ dream career is a combination of on-camera work and live theater and music, or as she puts it: “as Barbra Streisand and Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and Linda Ronstadt were a threesome and had a baby – that’s the career I want. As of this week, that mix includes an appearance as host of Fox’s new reality dating show “Farmer Wants a Wife.” When she was first given the chance by her agents, she immediately replied “no”. She had no interest in a series where, she assumed, a bunch of aspiring influencers would try to create scandalous moments to extend their 15 minutes of fame.
But then Nettles watched the Australian version (the show has aired in over 30 countries, including the United States on the CW in 2008) and found the premise: pairing women from “the big city” with farmers from small towns where dating is a struggle – more sincere than she expected. Born and raised in rural South Georgia and now living in New York City, Nettles liked the idea of being a “facilitator” of that potential love story. (Fox says the show has resulted in 180 marriages and 410 children worldwide.) Most of the time it just sounded fun.
“We did a rodeo, we did a demolition derby, we did a farmer’s dance,” Nettles said, ticking off the activities the contestants took part in as they searched for love. “To be part of a story that happens in real time, in someone else’s story, I think that’s what we’re all looking for when we watch these shows. … We really all want to feel seen and see something of ourselves in other people. I think it’s really rewarding to be part of a different kind of storytelling.”
So nope, maybe when her band got its big break almost twenty years ago with the smash hit “Baby Girl” and was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys, Nettles didn’t expect she’d ever host a show where she’d gleefully proclaiming to a barn full of women, “Who’s ready to fall for a farmer?!” But she loves that her career takes her to unexpected places, even when people reflexively see her and think “Sugarland.”
“People remember you from where they first saw you. … It’s like they remember you where they’re on it, and sometimes they want to keep you in it,” Nettles said. “But I’m sorry. I can’t stay in one place.”
In 2015, director Stephen Herek (“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “The Mighty Ducks”) was nervous when he first saw Nettles’ audition tape for NBC’s “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” the film based on Parton’s childhood in Tennessee. saw. . It looked like someone had coached her to pretend she was in a Broadway play, which wasn’t ideal for a made-for-TV movie.
An executive had strongly suggested that the production hire Nettles – it would be great for publicity – so even though she had little acting experience, Herek invited her to meet in person. And he was blown away.
“She was incredible — she was like a savant,” Herek said, adding that Nettles, who played the role of young Dolly’s mother, immediately took in his feedback. He urged her to channel as much of herself into the role as possible. “She was a natural… she picked things up very quickly.”
Nettles recalls having to suppress her natural inclination to play to the cheap seats, as she not only toured arenas as a teenager, but also spent years in community theater and drama club. She tapped into her love of musical theater in a limited Broadway engagement as Roxie Hart in “Chicago” in 2014, returning to the stage in 2021 to briefly take over the lead role from Sara Bareilles in “Waitress,” which she called “dream- level stuff.”
While honing her acting skills while appearing on shows such as WGN’s “Underground” and the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet,” Nettles caught the attention of Danny McBride, creator of HBO’s televangelist broadcast “The Righteous Gemstones.” He and his producers were looking for someone to play the dead matriarch in flashback scenes, someone with a strong moral compass. When his casting director showed them a tape of Nettles, McBride said, he was immediately hooked.
“There was something familiar about her — something relatable and accessible and warm and caring,” said McBride. “It instantly made you sad to think she was gone.”
His instincts were right with Nettles’ performance of “Misbehavin,” one of those songs written for TV that you can’t believe isn’t a hit. Nettles, unrecognizable in a curly-haired wig and glasses, sang the happy tune with Walton Goggins and the scene went viral. McBride was also impressed that even though Nettles was new to acting, she could go toe-to-toe with veterans like Goggins and John Goodman when they threw out lines of improv.
She exudes “an inherent warmth,” McBride said. “And she’s found a way to translate that into music and performance, which is what makes her work as a singer and actor.”
Nettles is well aware of how rare her trajectory is, especially in country music, where successful artists tend not to stray too far from the industry that made them famous — though there are a few clear exceptions.
‘Dolly, Reba… me? I’m looking forward to it,” she joked.
But as eager as Nettles is to expand, she’s still an extremely influential figure in country music, a genre that doesn’t have a stellar reputation for promoting contemporary female artists. Despite Sugarland’s huge success in the early 2000s, when Nettles went solo a decade later, her radio singles stalled on the charts, as happens with so many other women in the genre.
While many artists have called out country radio in recent years for its gender imbalance (studies have shown that only 10 to 15 percent of songs on country radio belong to women), Nettles caused quite a stir in 2019 when she was named on the Country Music Association Awards took to the red carpet wearing a dramatic cape that read in bold letters: “PLAY OUR F*@#!N RECORDS.”
Nettles said that, from an observational point of view, she hasn’t seen things improve much: “I don’t feel like I see the numbers changing with any significance, with any impact, unfortunately.” But the image has stuck with many in the country music industry.
“Who else would do that but Jennifer Nettles?” said Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy. “I know artists have quietly gone to her for advice. … She really helped open doors for a lot of other artists,” said Fram. CMT awarded Nettles the inaugural Equal Play Award in 2020 for her advocacy for women in country music. The network also wanted to honor someone who championed underrepresented voting, Fram said, noting Nettles’ outspoken support for artists of color and the LGBTQ community in the predominantly white, heteronormative genre. “We just felt she was the natural choice.”
While fans are always curious about Sugarland’s status, Nettles said she and bandmate Bush started working together organically, and right now they’re just as organically focused on their own careers. Nettles was thrilled to reveal last week that she’s joining the upcoming reboot of “The Exorcist,” and right now she’s hoping people actually enjoy “Farmer Wants a Wife,” a show she promises is much more authentic than similar ones. dating shows, especially with the contestants.
“Their hearts are in it for all the right reasons. They’re curious, and they’re open, and they want adventure, and they want something new, and they want to ask the hard questions, you know, ‘What are you willing to do for love? What are you willing to risk? Are you willing to change your life?’” Nettles said.
The latter is something Nettles can relate to – she noted that some of the earliest Sugarland songs were all about reinvention and a woman changing her life in some way, which brings a nice round moment to her current path to explore everything. .
“All of those messages, while in different contexts, are one of expansion, growth and change,” she said. “And that’s what I do in my life.”