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    Thursday, March 30, 2023

    Nettles is a country star and 'Farmer Wants a Wife' host - and loves it

    Jennifer Nettles has one of the most expressive voices in country music, but she can also say a lot with just a look. When asked during a video interview whether anyone ever tried to dissuade her from expanding her career beyond music, she leaned into the camera with a meaningful, deadpan expression on her face.

    "All. The. Time."

    After all, once you're part of a Grammy-winning duo that sold millions of albums, what more could you want? That is certainly the thinking among 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 when Nettles decided she wanted to try acting. And Broadway. And reality TV.

    "It's hard whenever you feel like, okay, I'm branching out over here, I'm going solo over there, I'm doing this over here. And some people are still like, 'One half of the country duo Sugarland!'" Nettles said, imitating a deep broadcaster voice. "And I'm like, 'Well, I love that. But guys, I've done so many other things.'"

    In an ideal world, Nettles's dream career is a combination of on-camera work and live theater and music, or as she puts it, "if Barbra Streisand and Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and Linda Ronstadt were a throuple and had a baby - that's the career that I want." As of this week, that mix includes a gig as host of Fox's new reality dating show "Farmer Wants a Wife." When she was first presented with the opportunity from her agents, she responded with an immediate "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 more than 30 countries, including the United States on the CW in 2008) and found the premise - pairing up women from "the big city" with farmers from small towns where dating is a struggle - more genuine than she expected. Nettles, who was born and raised in rural southern Georgia and now lives in New York City, liked the idea of being a "facilitator" of that potential love story. (Fox says that the show has resulted in 180 marriages and 410 children worldwide.) Mostly, it just sounded fun.

    "We did a rodeo, we did a demolition derby, we did a barn dance," Nettles said, ticking off activities the contestants participated in during their quests to find love. "To get to be a part of a story happening in real time, in someone else's story, I think that that's what we're all looking for when we watch these shows. ... We're really all looking to feel seen and to see some of ourselves in other people. I think it's very rewarding to get to be a part of a different kind of storytelling."

    So, no, maybe back when her band got its big break with the smash hit "Baby Girl" nearly two decades ago and was nominated for best new artist at the Grammys, Nettles didn't expect she would one day host a show where she would cheerfully announce to a barn full of women, "Who's ready to fall for a farmer?!" But she finds it delightful that her career leads her to unexpected places, even if people reflexively see her and think "Sugarland."

    "People remember you from where they first saw you. ... It's like they remember you where they imprint on it, and sometimes want to keep you in it," Nettles said. "But I'm sorry. I can't stay in one place."

    Back in 2015, director Stephen Herek ("Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," "The Mighty Ducks") was nervous when he first saw Nettles's audition tape for NBC's "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors," the film based on Parton's childhood in Tennessee. It looked like someone had coached her to act like 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 an in-person meeting. 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, absorbed his feedback immediately. He urged her to channel as much of herself as possible into the role. "She was a natural ... she was able to pick up on things very quickly."

    Nettles remembers that she had to tamp down her natural inclination to play to the cheap seats, because in addition to touring arenas, she spent years in community theater and drama club when she was a teenager. She leveraged her love of musical theater into a limited Broadway engagement as Roxie Hart in "Chicago" in 2014, and returned to the stage in 2021 to briefly take over the lead role from Sara Bareilles in "Waitress," which she calls "dream-level stuff."

    As she sharpened her acting skills while appearing on shows such as WGN's "Underground" and Harriet Tubman biopic "Harriet," Nettles caught the attention of Danny McBride, creator of HBO's televangelist sendup "The Righteous Gemstones." He and his producers were looking for someone to play the late 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 sold.

    "There was something familiar about her - something relatable and accessible and warm and caring," McBride said. "It instantly made you sad to think of her not being around anymore."

    His instincts were proven right with Nettles's performance of "Misbehavin,'" one of those songs written for TV that you can't believe isn't a real-life hit. Nettles, unrecognizable in a curly-haired wig and glasses, belted out the upbeat 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 such as Goggins and John Goodman when they tossed out improv lines.

    She exudes "a warmth that's inherent," McBride said. "And she's found a way to translate that into music and performances, and that's 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 obvious exceptions.

    "Dolly, Reba ... me? I'm into it," she joked.

    But as eager as Nettles is to branch out, she's still an extremely influential figure in country music, a genre that does not have a great reputation when it comes to promoting contemporary female artists. Despite Sugarland's massive success in the early 2000s, when Nettles went solo a decade later her radio singles stalled on the charts, as happens to 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 only 10 to 15 percent of songs on country radio are by women), Nettles caused quite a stir in 2019 when she appeared on the Country Music Association Awards red carpet with a dramatic cape that read in bold letters, "PLAY OUR F*@#!N RECORDS."

    Nettles said that, observationally, she hasn't seen things improve much: "I don't feel like I'm seeing the numbers change with any significance, with any impact, unfortunately." But the image has stayed 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's really helped open doors for a lot of other artists," Fram said. CMT awarded Nettles its inaugural Equal Play Award in 2020 for her advocacy for women in country music. The network also wanted to honor someone who championed underrepresented voices, Fram said, and pointed to Nettles's outspoken support of artists of color and the LGBTQ community in the majority-White, heteronormative genre. "We just felt she was the natural choice."

    Though fans are always curious about the status of Sugarland, Nettles said that she and bandmate Bush started working together organically, and at the moment they are 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 is hoping people really enjoy "Farmer Wants a Wife," a show that she promises is far more authentic than similar dating shows, particularly with the participants.

    "Their hearts are in it for 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 one way or another, which brings a neat, full-circle moment to her current path of exploring everything.

    "All of those messages, while they're in different contexts, are ones of expansion, growth and change," she said. "And that's what I'm doing in my life."