Though it’s become hard to remember, Sugarland was originally founded as a duo… without Jennifer Nettles. In 2002, Kristen Hall and Kristian Bush (who’s still in the band) created Sugarland, later adding Nettles as a lead singer. Hall left in 2005 to “stay home and write songs,” according to the band’s statement — but there was clearly something happening behind the scenes. So what ever happened to the phantom third member of Sugarland?
Hall, Bush and Nettles were regulars at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia, a staple of Georgia’s Americana scene, just outside of Atlanta. Nettles’ ex-husband even owned the venue for a short time. After the original duo had brought Nettles on as a lead singer, the trio began working on their debut album, Twice The Speed of Life, which was released two years after the group formed. Hall was the only member to garner a writing credit on every single song, which seems to imply that her talents were the band’s very backbone. The album has sold over three million copies and produced several hits, including “Baby Girl”, “Something More”, and “Just Might (Make Me Believe)”, and Sugarland was nominated for 2006’s Best New Artist Grammy. This sort of immediate success is extremely rare, so why would the band’s founding member leave amidst such wild success?
A few months after the group released “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” as a single — notably the only one Hall wrote on her own — Sugarland released a strange statement. Posted on their website on Jan. 17, 2006, it read, “Kristen has decided that she wants to stay home and write songs, and we support her in that decision.” The change was effective immediately, and the band played their next show without Hall. Besides Sugarland’s almost unprecedented success out of the gate, this statement ended up being peculiar for another reason: Hall never really released any more music. In 2008, she released a six-song EP, Katy the Wonder Cub, but has stayed quiet other than that. So why did she really leave?
Given the strange circumstances behind Hall’s exit, it was only a matter of time until newfound drama arose. Hall ended up suing Bush and Nettles in 2008 for $1.5 million, claiming that she was owed back payments in the form of her one-third share of the band. “They know this was a partnership,” said Barry O’Neil, Hall’s lawyer. “This just comes down to fairness — whether Ms. Hall will be fairly compensated for all the work she did on behalf of getting Sugarland off the ground.” Sugarland’s attorney called the suit “nothing more than quitter’s remorse,” and Nettles’ statements were even harsher.
When asked about what Hall brought to Sugarland, Nettles called her “a decent songwriter,” and when further questioned about Hall’s contributions, Nettles said, “She had the wherewithal and smarts to call me [to join the band].” According to the records that were released from the proceedings, Hall was becoming increasingly unhappy during Sugarland’s relentless 2003-2005 touring schedule. An occupational therapist was hired as a stopgap, but it wasn’t enough, causing Hall to leave.
The premise of Hall’s suit was that the band had agreed to split profits with her after she left but had not done so. Despite her initial inputs — like re-recording “Baby Girl”, which stands out as one of Sugarland’s biggest hits to date — Bush and Nettles claimed that Hall might owe them money. At the time of the separation, the band had $15,344 of assets and liabilities of $99,042, which the then-new duo paid off themselves, not asking for Hall’s financial support in doing so.
The suit was settled for a whopping $14 million in Nov. 2010, though its exact terms were never revealed.
Besides the 2008 EP, country music hasn’t heard much from Kristen Hall. She did help co-write songs from Courtney Jaye’s 2013 album Love and Forgiveness, as well as Terri Clark’s 2011 Roots & Wings. “Kristen Hall is definitely one of those people that I felt have helped raise the bar for me as a writer,” said Clark about their co-writing sessions. “She’s been doing this a really long time. She really knows how to corral a great idea and a great thought into something that sounds like a smash. She’s really talented at a lot of fun to hang out with. We’ve become buddies in the process and if we never write another song together, we’ll be friends forever. She’s salt of the earth, I love her.”
It would seem that Hall is content staying behind-the-scenes, sharing her writing talents when she’s feeling creative. Were she to release a full-length under her own name, her decades of musical experience would probably translate pretty well. But for now, retiring with millions in the bank doesn’t sound too bad, either.