One day three years ago, Janece Shaffer was breezing through bolo ties and church clothes in the glass cases at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, when she came across rhinestones. Hundreds of them, affixed to the costumes that, for decades, were the emblems of country-western music. Below the painstakingly preserved, retina-scarring outfits once worn by the Maddox Brothers and Rose (billed as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band!”), Shaffer, a playwright and third-generation Atlantan, noted the names of the designers responsible for the explosion of gaudiness: Nathan Turk; Nudie Cohn, also known as Nuta Kotlyarenko; Bernard “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein.
How, she wondered, did Eastern European Jews end up creating these bedazzled masterpieces that became synonymous with American country music? In the gift shop, she bought a copy of the five-pound The Encyclopedia of Country Music and began plucking and collecting colorful anecdotes and shiny factoids on the history of genre.
What resulted is Troubadour, a new musical by Shaffer that premieres January 18 at the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer, who has premiered five plays at the Alliance, is perhaps best known for the 2014 hit The Geller Girls, set at Atlanta’s 1895 Cotton States Exposition. Like Alfred Uhry, another Atlanta playwright, Shaffer has carved out a successful niche for herself, thanks to her funny, three-dimensional female characters and romantic stories, often set in the South. Her 2011 play Broke, about Atlantans coping with the Great Recession, was inspired when she saw someone using a $90 corkscrew to open a bottle of Trader Joe’s two-buck Chuck.
Troubadour is set in a dirty Nashville filling station in 1951. Billy Mason, the king of country music in this fictional world, is about to retire. His son, Joe, a musician as well, is figuring out if he has the chops to reinvent the genre for his own generation. Inez, a young songwriter, is Joe’s love interest. But the first character Shaffer put on paper was Izzy, a colorful, if slightly crazy, Russian immigrant tailor with “outlandish ideas about the packaging of country music.” Izzy is inspired, in part, by Shaffer’s study of Nudie Cohn, the Ukrainian-born tailor who created Hank Williams’s signature white cowboy ensemble and Robert Redford’s 100-watt wardrobe in the 1979 drama The Electric Horseman.
As Shaffer began to flesh out her characters, she moved Billy and Joe’s estrangement center stage, along with Joe and Inez’s love story. There was just one problem: If you’re writing a play about country music, you’re going to need, well, country music. And Shaffer’s facility with words did not extend to scoring. Then a friend mentioned that she’d once sat next to Kristian Bush on a flight and came away with his email address. She gave it to Shaffer. Shaffer, who was familiar with Bush’s songwriting through his work with the band Sugarland, felt he would be an ideal collaborator. But would he be interested in writing songs for a play? Shaffer had no idea.
Shaffer took two hours early one morning to compose her email to Bush. Describing the songs the play—whose working title at that point was Izzy Crazy—demanded, Shaffer wrote, “The authenticity and power of the music—sometimes a tender hymn about faith, other times a bad-ass song that is unapologetic and truth-telling—is pivotal to the success of the story. I know your music and your talent, and I’d love to talk. Right now Izzy Crazy wakes me up, demanding I find some music—the right person to help me complete this world. And I think you’re the guy.”
On the morning Shaffer clicked “send,” Kristian Bush was upstairs in his Candler Park house rifling through his past. A film crew was there shooting a documentary on his career, which began in 1990, back when he was half of the acoustic duo Billy Pilgrim. It wasn’t until 2004, though, that Bush’s career took off, when he, Jennifer Nettles, and Kristen Hall inked a deal with Mercury Records as Sugarland (Hall left the group in 2006), a collaboration that resulted in five hit albums. In 2012 Nettles put Sugarland on hiatus to pursue her solo career and start a family. Bush’s own solo debut in 2015, Southern Gravity, peaked at 16 on the Billboard Top Country Album chart and yielded a top 25 country hit, but the label that released it, Streamsound Records, was on shaky ground. And even though Sugarland was still under contract with Mercury Records for two more albums, Nettles was still too busy to get the band back together again.
“I was in this in-between spot,” Bush says. “And I was intrigued by these characters that Janece described in the email.” Then he Googled her name and read the reviews of her richly drawn Southern characters. “I needed a fresh challenge, and the idea of writing something for the theater was exhilarating but also terrifying. Janece was just inviting me to breakfast. I love breakfast. What could it hurt?” So Bush hit “reply.”
A few mornings later, Bush and Shaffer were sitting at the Flying Biscuit in Candler Park. “Janece just launched right into it, giving me this backstory on these characters,” Bush says. “It was mesmerizing, like listening to a book on tape.” The songwriter started scribbling notes. But he put down his pen when Shaffer got to the part about the estranged father and son. Joe’s struggle—reconciling the pull of family with the pull of your own dreams—resonated with Bush, whose great-great-grandfather was A.J. Bush, who founded the eponymous canned baked bean business. It was always expected that the young Kristian would join the family business, as his father and his grandfather had. Instead, when he was 15, Kristian left home for boarding school, eventually landing at Emory to study creative writing.
When he wasn’t at school, Bush could often be found on stage at Trackside Tavern in Decatur, building a local following with his musical partner Andrew Hyra. “Dad wasn’t a big fan of music as a career choice,” Bush says. His father, Jack Bush, had back-burnered his own artistic pursuits of painting and photography. “My father didn’t get to be what he thought he was going to be in life,” says Bush. “And my brother [Brandon, who has played with Train and Sugarland and who serves as Troubadour’s musical director] and I both jumped on the rocket and did it.”
There were other sources of resentment. After Kristian and Brandon’s mother died, Jack—who was by then married to someone else—did not attend her funeral. Communication between father and son became infrequent.
When Bush left his breakfast with Shaffer that day, he carried in his hand a copy of the script. And in his head was a melody for what would become “From the Father to the Son,” Troubadour’s gospel- and bluegrass-infused opening number. In his car, he pulled out his phone, opened a microphone app, and began singing.
With Bush on board, Shaffer’s initial idea of a play with four original songs “imploded” as the Sugarland songwriter, energized by the idea of writing from the various characters’ viewpoints, began texting the playwright MP3s of his guitar and voice demos. “It’s pretty incredible to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey honey, want to hear the brand-new song Kristian Bush just texted me?’” Shaffer says. Four songs became five, then became six, and eventually became a dozen.
The duo established a strict musical universe for Troubadour: The characters, all singer-songwriters, would need an organic, natural reason to perform the songs in the show. Or as Shaffer describes their pact, “No one would burst into song singing about their breakfast.”
After driving his kids to school, Bush would sit on his front porch, guitar in hand, noodling with chord progressions and melody lines. He’d call Shaffer, and they’d talk through each song idea. “There was a lot of mystery involved,” Bush says. “Janece would tell me exactly what she wanted, but she only told me why the characters would be writing a song at that particular moment, not what to write. Like an actor, I had to crawl into each character’s head and figure it out.”
Bush researched what Billy Mason’s early radio hits from the mid-1930s would have sounded like. He interviewed friends of country music’s iconic Carter Family. He recaptured a 1950s Sun Records Memphis sound for upstart Joe and used the purity of Emmylou Harris’s voice as a template for Inez’s character.
But when Bush sent Shaffer his MP3 demo of “Lucky Tree,” a song performed by Inez at a pivotal point in the show, Shaffer quickly realized they had broken their vow of authenticity and had veered into something more bombastic. Inez had busted out of that dirty Nashville gas station and was now threatening to scale Evita’s balcony to opine, diva-like, on her situation.
Sitting in her car, Shaffer called Bush. “I screwed you up,” she said. When Inez opens her mouth to sing for the first time, it had to feel as authentic as hearing Patsy Cline’s voice for the first time, not the heightened dramatics of a full-throated showstopper. The two spent the next 45 minutes talking through possible course corrections.
When Shaffer hung up, a stymied Bush, a guy who owns a pair of Grammys, went upstairs, grabbed his laptop, and typed “how to write a country song” into his search engine. The top result informed him: “A country song is always plain and simple.”
Two hours later when Shaffer checked her phone, three new Kristian Bush songs were waiting for her, including one titled “Plain and Simple.” Inez’s feet were once again planted firmly in the red clay of the South.
As Shaffer’s original “play with music” blossomed into a full-blown musical, Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan Booth, a longtime champion of Shaffer’s words and a fan of Bush’s music since his Billy Pilgrim days, requested a reading of the work.
In March 2016 Shaffer and Bush joined Booth in the Alliance Theatre studio. A cast of local actors and musicians hired for the day stood ready to deliver her dialogue and his music for the first time.
“You never really know what you have until you hear it out loud,” Shaffer says. “I knew the music was beautiful, but I was sitting there thinking, Please let my script work. Please let this gel together.” When the jokes in the script started landing and the room responded to Bush’s stripped down Americana music, Bush began excitedly kicking Shaffer under the table. By the end of the reading, Booth asked Bush if he might consider adding a curtain call number to the show.
“I was so caught up in the moment, I immediately said yes,” Bush says. “I wasn’t going to tell Susan Booth to hang on while I Googled and found out what a curtain call was.”
“The two of them have a kind of alchemy that defies logic,” Booth says. “Janece describes an emotional moment she wants to create, and suddenly Kristian delivers a song that captures it, and it has all these wide open doors and windows for you to walk through and experience that emotional moment in a deeply visceral way.”
As Shaffer and Bush amped up Troubadour’s central love story between Inez and Joe, Bush’s cellphone rang. It was his father calling from Newport, Tennessee, summoning Kristian home. Jack Bush had just learned he had liver cancer. The singer immediately put his kids in the car and headed west. What followed was a reconciliation. “He worked really hard, and I worked really hard,” Bush says. “For my dad, this was about facing the end of your life and how you handle it. He reached out to me and made space for us to reconcile. I grabbed onto the chance with both hands.”
Now with a solid script and score in hand, Shaffer and Bush’s creative lucky streak continued at auditions in New York, Atlanta, and Nashville last fall. After enduring more than a few mediocre Billy Mason auditions, Radney Foster (one half of the 1980s country duo Foster & Lloyd, best known for the 1987 hit single “Crazy Over You”) claimed the role not long after he walked into the Tennessee Performing Arts Center with his silver hair slicked back, carrying a Bible and a beat up guitar case, and began singing. Likewise in Atlanta, with his burnished baritone, Marietta resident and former The Voice contestant Zach Seabaugh, 18, scored the role of Joe.
Then, on August 2 last year, Jack Bush died. He was 71.
“In many ways, our reconciliation was his last great move as a parent,” Bush says. “We made it right between us.” And Bush got the chance to play his father the songs from Troubadour. They reminded the elder Bush of the music he grew up with in eastern Tennessee. “There are a lot of mysteries about how our lives unfold,” Bush says. “I spent an entire year writing a musical about fathers and sons and dreamers and whether you should follow your dreams. I had no idea I was writing my own story.”
As Troubadour neared rehearsals last November, the musical’s song count had ballooned to 15. Shaffer and Bush have already begun talking about reteaming for a new show. “This has given me a fresh burst of confidence,” Bush says. “Working on Troubadour changed me as a writer. It has reminded me that you can’t escape your own life.”
Now framed and hanging beside Bush’s songwriting desk in Candler Park is some fresh inspiration, a message from a father to a son. Two weeks before his death, Jack Bush spent the night at his son’s other home in Nashville as he sought a second opinion at a nearby hospital. Before he departed, he left a note on the counter for his son: “Kristian, I really hope that your career is rewarding and that it makes you happy. Love, Dad.”
Old Nashville Glam
What characters wear also tells a story, and that’s doubly true for Troubadour, inspired in part by Nudie Cohn and his iconic country-and-western costuming (like Robert Redford’s suit in The Electric Horseman). As costume designer Lex Liang describes it, the characters inhabit a monochromatic world, but that all changes when Izzy shows up. Then, he says, “it’s as though someone turns on the color.” Over the course of two hours, Liang says, he wants the costumes to show the evolution of style and dress in American country music.
This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.