Music has been a part of Sugarland co-founder life since he was 3, even in high school at when music was scarce on campus.
By the time he graduated in 1988, the all-boy private school’s music program was a year old. Now, as Avon Old Farms Headmaster Ken LaRocque pointed out Friday during a ceremony honoring Bush with a Distinguished Alumnus Award, the music scene is vibrant, from the Riddlers a cappella group to musicals.
“They were tolerant to allow me to push and push about music. I can’t believe that 25 years later it’s a music school,” he said. “What you might see in an Avon sweatshirt walking down the road could be just about anybody.... They really could be somebody soon. Don’t ever underestimate it. The impossible is sometimes possible.”
The unlikeliness that a man from east Tennessee would end up in the small New England town like Avon was high, Bush said. But his family came into some money after selling the family business -- Bush’s Baked Beans -- giving him the opportunity to attend Avon Old Farms.
“Of course I jumped at it because it was somewhere other than the middle of the hills in Tennessee,” Bush said, “but what I didn’t quite know was who you would meet. I sounded funny. My accent...you could hear it across the quad.... I was already on the outside because I sounded kind of strange.... but what was great was they respected intelligence, which they do here.”
Bush “always had the courage to be different,” LaRocque said, living up to the mantra of the school’s founder and Connecticut’s first female architect that “the ways in which we differ are far more important than the ways we are alike.”
John Hale, Bush’s honors American literature teacher at the time, wrote him a college recommendation, which LaRocque read to aloud at the ceremony, calling him a “creative thinker, writer and energetic participant in class room discussions.”
“Unfailingly cheerful and full of humor, Kristian is nonetheless a frequent and insightful critic of the status quo in politics and the culture at large,” Hale wrote in his recommendations. “He often sees the other side of an idea, asking questions which force others to look at the issue in a new way.”
After being denied from Berklee College of Music in Boston because he “couldn’t read music,” the music never died for Bush. He trained by ear through the Suzuki method. He continued to inspire at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, informally credited with kick-starting the creative writing program there as the first graduate in the major.
“In music we only get three sentences. Sometimes four. And you’ve got to repeat them over and over again,” Bush said. “To find meaning in it is a little trickier than in a poem and less dimensional than a short story. So it does help because you need to know what you’re not putting in there.”
Even in a new state in high school, Bush remained true to one constant in his life -- music. He wrote his first song when he was 13.
“My first three albums were terrible, but I was 13, 14, 15 years old. But I was here. I was making them while I was here,” Bush said. “I was writing them in my dorm.”
He and his brother, who went to school at Fay School in Southbourough, MA and then Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, would record music, “some kind of new wave rock,” in March during vacations, pooling money made from summer jobs.
“That would be the album we’d sell to our friends for all the following years,” he said.
Within his first week at Avon Old Farms, he convinced George Trautman, the headmaster of the time, to give him the keys to what is now the school’s bike shop for a place to jam with his band.
He and his Avon Old Farms bands would play around the region, “wherever they would let us,” Bush said. He even played at the school’s Boar’s Head winter festival and his prom in the Old Farms refectory.
“It kept me from having to have a date,” he joked.
In high school, he had lead roles in some of the first Old Farms musicals like Grease and Godspell.
“Kristian always had a smile on his face. He had a sparkle in his eye,” LaRocque said. “He was always humming some tune and we all knew he was possessed, but he was possessed in a good way. He was possessed with his music.”
Coming to Avon was a “formative” experience for him because he convinced teachers to bring him to concerts in Hartford, New Haven and around the state. He went to his first The Grateful Dead, R.E.M., The Cult and Billy Idol shows in Connecticut.
“All of that mixed in is where I got the bug. Now I drink the Kool-Aid. I’m in,” Bush said. “There’s nothing more fun than 20,000 people.”
Bush pointed out that getting starting in music takes endurance because “humans are lazy by nature.”
“So, just keep going and they’ll stop,” Bush said. “And you’ll be ahead. Hard work will outpace talent all the time because someone who is really, really talented, although they blow your mind, they’re going to show up late one day and they’re not going to rehearse because they think they can skate by. And if you just keep working, you’re going to keep working.”
Bush’s talent and perseverance has brought him success with Sugarland. The country duo, including his singing partner Jennifer Nettles, has sold 8 million records, according to the band’s website, winning Grammy, Country Music Association and American Country Music awards.
Four month ago he wrote a song for the Nobel Peace Prize concert and he has also had dinner at The White House with his 10-year-old son, Tucker, who was at the ceremony with him Friday.
He added that he and Nettles are going to be performing on Dancing with the Stars in a couple of weeks.
Sugarland plays at the Big E nearly every year in West Springfield, MA and Bush’s connection to New England remains.
“You wouldn’t believe this by pop culture, but Boston’s one of the largest country music audiences in the U.S,” Bush said, second to Chicago and ahead of Los Angeles and Dallas.
Whenever he comes back to Connecticut to play, the landscape takes him back to when he was 15 and nervous, he said.
What’s Bush like today in comparison to his high school self?
“There’s a lot more hair on my face because you’re allowed too and I’m a little funnier and a little better at writing songs,” he said. “I guess in retrospect, I’ve been just as lucky. It’s just it was a different kind of luck. Luck is a lot of hard work. and this place kind of teaches you to work really hard to get lucky.”
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