Jennifer Nettles talks sexism in country music, going solo and how 4-H changed her life for the better
By: Gibson Johns
Jennifer Nettles is on a mission, and it's a mission to empower children all around the country. She wants to encourage kids -- including her own 2-year-old son, Magnus -- to "explore and find and discover a passion," because that's exactly what she did at a young age.
How did she do it? Through 4-H, the country's largest positive youth development and mentoring organization, which she has been involved with since she was a curious little fifth grader in South Georgia. She credits her time as an adolescent in 4-H as having planted the seed for her drive to succeed in the music industry.
As the face of its new Grow True Leaders campaign, Nettles hopes to impart that wisdom to a new generation of children. The campaign is focused on increasing 4-H's presence in urban areas, hoping to continue providing today's youth with the "opportunities to find their voice and develop into leaders."
We chatted exclusively Jennifer Nettles on the phone last week about her involvement in the campaign, empowering young women, sexism in country music and what we can expect from her upcoming solo album, "Playing with Fire" (which you can pre-order here).
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Check out our full conversation with Jennifer Nettles below:
How did you first get involved in 4-H?
When I was in the fifth grade, I got involved in 4-H when the local country extension agent came around to all of the elementary schools and told us about 4-H and told us that it was a club for kids that did fun things, and it met once a month, which meant that you'd get 30 minutes out of class, which all sounded good to me. So, I signed up!
In doing so, it changed the course of my life. That is not hyperbole or exaggeration: I would not be doing what I am doing today, at the level that I am doing it, if I hadn't been a part of 4-H.
I participated in a variety of -- for lack of a better term -- competitions, in things that I had an interest in. People think that 4-H is all about agriculture, which is just because, when it originated in this country, agriculture was the only game in town. That's what most people did. But, since then, it has grown and expanded and diversified and into wide-reaching areas: Everything from performing arts to public speaking to robotics and computers. It's amazing.
Also at that time, I became involved, thanks to 4-H, in a performing arts organization called Clovers and Company and that got my little South Georgia country butt up and doing things. I can't sing its praises enough.
What are some of the biggest changes that you saw in yourself as a result of your involvement with 4-H? Were there any particular experiences that you credit with being particularly life-changing?
Absolutely! The biggest thing for me was the Clovers, the performing arts troupe. It traveled around and did performances, and it allowed for me to be around other kids who were just like me, who had brains, who ate and breathed and lived performing arts. They had dreams to continue to do it as a career, just as I did. That was, for me, my first opportunity to be around kids who were just like me, in that way.
How has becoming a mother, to your 2-year-old son Magnus, informed your activism and the things you choose to align yourself with?
It has made me so appreciative of having a passion as a young girl. Going through school, I was so hell-bent on trying my best to succeed at my dreams. I didn't want to mess that up, so I didn't get into drugs or get into trouble. I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do and having that passion allowed me to avoid those bad decisions.
As a mom, organizations such as 4-H seem so much more important, because I want that same experience for Magnus. I want him to explore and find and discover a passion that will bring him joy and allow him to make good decisions. That's what 4-H allows you to do.
How has being a good role model for and championing young girls, in particular, remained important for you throughout your career?
I've always been a champion of women and young girls. It's important for me to be an example of positivity of what women can do, both within the entertainment industry and in general. Because I'm able to say I was involved in 4-H, it can give [young girls] a touchpoint to really say, "Wow, she was involved in 4-H, and she went on to achieve all of this? Maybe if I get into this, I might be able to achieve some things that I want to do." It's somewhat grassroots, but I think that's the most affective way to do things.
Going off of that, you're currently on the Next Women of Country 2016 Tour, with other female country artists like Brandy Clark, Lindsay Ell and Tara Thompson, which does exactly that. Especially with so much attention being paid to the disparity between male and female artists in country music, was it crucial for you to empower your younger female peers?
Absolutely. We have a long way to go, with the current temperature being where it is. We have a long way to go, and we'd be fooling ourselves if we allow our embarrassment over the -- truth that sexism exists in the music industry -- to cloud our perceptions.
We still have a long way to go, but the interesting part about the music industry is that it's a two-fold problem: There are those parts that are engrained in the good ol' boys network, if you will, that need to change. That's the institutionalized version of sexism. And then there are just the trends. In the '90s, you couldn't sling a cat without hearing a woman on the radio, between the Martinas and the Shanias and the Rebas. Now, you have a lot of the "bro country."
So, right now, there is definitely a lack of female faces, and I do hope that starts to change. But what does make me hopeful is that people are actually talking about it. At the very least, it has started a conversation, which can often lead to change.
Obviously, it's been a couple years since you and Kristian Bush went on hiatus from Sugarland. How has your general experience in going solo been?
For me, it's been super enriching in so many ways. From a writing standpoint, when you're involved in a musical collaboration of any sort, you're going to have a respect and show deference for the people in the room. That being said, as a solo artist, I've been able to show a more intimate and personal side to myself. I've also been able to spread my wings in other areas: I did Broadway last year, I've done some acting this year. I've really been enjoying growing as a storyteller across the board.
Do you and Kristian have any plans to record together in the future?
Right now, we have no specific plans. I have a new album coming out on May 13 called "Playing with Fire" that I'm super excited about. We're both enjoying what we're doing. There's no reason why we shouldn't one day [record together again] -- because I love that music and I know Kristian does too -- but we don't have any specific dates on the calendar.
Do you have any specific collaborations on your upcoming album that you're especially excited about?
Yes! I did a fantastic collaboration with J.Lo, which I don't want to say too much about. She's so lovely and so talented, and it's a song that I think a lot of people will be able to connect to.
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