Sugarland Singer Makes Grand Ole Opry Debut With Other Duo—Billy Pilgrim: Exclusive

Kristian Bush of Sugarland sat with his back facing the large make-up mirror in dressing room number three backstage at the Grand Ole Opry House Saturday night. Family and friends, including his brother Brandon and Sugarland’s drummer Travis McNabb, crowded into the overstuffed couches and chairs that lined the cozy dressing room’s wall.

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His duet partner of 34 years, Andrew Hyra, is beside him. The men met in 1990 at a songwriters’ night in Knoxville, Tennessee, and formed the folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim – Bush’s first swipe at paying his bills with music. And for a while, it worked. They recorded and released five albums by 2001 — two on Atlantic Records — that were rich with songs, including “Sweet Louisiana Sound” and “Insomniac,” a cultural phenomenon with such legs it was just profiled in the New York Times 29 years after its release.

Bush met Sugarland duet partner Jennifer Nettles when she played a show with Billy Pilgrim in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. When he and Hyra went in separate musical directions, Bush teamed with Nettles for Sugarland. Hyra learned carpentry and co-founded the Smokin’ Novas. The men parted ways for a while but reunited in 2015 at the 30A Songwriter Festival when Hyra surprised Bush on stage by walking on and starting to sing with him.

Billy Pilgrim Takes the Grand Ole Opry Stage

Saturday night, nine years later, Billy Pilgrim made its Grand Ole Opry debut. Hyra’s daughters came to watch him perform, and for his youngest daughter, Charlotte, it was the first time she had seen her dad sing on stage. When the time came, the men grabbed their instruments and filed out of the room with their families to the stage. Jeannie Seely was ending her set as the group reached the side of the Opry curtain. Seely finished, the Grand Ole Opry’s announcer read Billy Pilgrim’s introduction, and the men strode on stage.

“I love this lady,” Bush quipped. “She’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the guy from Sugarland.’ You are correct. You’re about to meet one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with.”
“Thank you,” Hyra shot back.

“You’re welcome,” Bush replied. “I consider this my home, and you’re invited. This first song is about two things that are better when they’re broken in: love and blue jeans.”

“Love and Blue Jeans” is from Bush’s album “52|This Year.” The pair followed with Billy Pilgrim’s signature hit “Insomniac” and “With You I’m Alive.” By the second song, audience members had raised their phones in the air and started to take videos.

The night marked Bush’s third Grand Ole Opry debut as he had already played the revered radio stage with Sugarland and as a solo artist. For Hyra, it wasn’t only his first time on stage at The Grand Ole Opry but also his first time seeing the show. The magic of the evening wasn’t lost on him.

“Hank Williams, Sr. is how I learned songwriting,” Hyra said in the dressing room after the show. “Because I’m a folkie, I got into it through Woodie Gutherie and Bob Dylan. From Dylan, I got to Lead Belly and those writers. Everything is basically country. Springsteen, to me, is country. But it’s a hollowed place. I know what kind of church The Opry is. I’m like, ‘What, are you kidding? This is history.”

Sugarland’s Kristian Bush Talks Nerves & the Grand Ole Opry Experience

Bush remembers being “completely out of my head nervous” during his first two Grand Ole Opry debuts but relaxed and reveled in watching his friend enjoy the experience and the audience discover the duo Saturday night.

“Andrew is looking at me, and I’m looking back at him. It’s like, ‘We got this,'” Bush said. “That’s how it is when you’re in a band like this, and Andrew and I are very close. We are singing at the same time, sometimes looking at each other. So, if things ever go wrong, you’ve already got somebody right there. What was really interesting was watching the first 10, 15 rows be like, ‘Wow, I don’t understand what this is, but I love it.'”

By then, the dressing room was mostly empty, and the friends were rushing to be on time for their dinner reservations. Hyra’s oldest daughter said she was cold and wanted to stop and get a sweatshirt. Bush pointed to a black jacket hanging from a peg by the door and told her she could wear it.

“Perfect,” Liv said. “Thank you.”

“Solutions, solutions,” Bush said. “I’m the solution architect.”

And with that, the three of them walked out of the door.

Bush will perform with Sugarland and Little Big Town on Sunday during the 2024 CMT Music Awards, which will air live from Austin, Texas’ Moody Center  8 p.m. -11 p.m., ET/PT on CBS, and will be available to stream live and on-demand on Paramount+.

Photo credit: Chris Hollo/Grand Ole Opry

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