Greg Mooney / Alliance Theater
Kristian Bush is one of the most successful artists in country music, both as a songwriter and a member of the Sugarland duo. But his latest venture, Troubadour, is a musical – about country music in the 1950s, and a relationship between a star and her son.
When it comes to collaboration, Bush says he’s open to just about anything – “If you ask nicely.” This is how he and Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer ended up tapping into the project.
“I wrote him an email and we met for breakfast,” Shaffer said. “By the end of breakfast, he had written the first song for the show, ‘Father to the Son’.”
Troubadour is a story about family and legacy – familiar themes in many country songs. The idea for the musical came from a clothing exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
“It started with church clothes, dark clothes, dark pants, white tops, string ties, very, very simple,” Shaffer explains. “And then there was that moment in the exhibition where it exploded with color, decoration and rhinestones – I wanted to know what happened then.”
It was 1951, when the embroidered and rhinestone-embellished outfits of tailor Nudie Cohn began to appeal to country and western musicians. Director Susan Booth says a Cohn-based character was central to Shaffer’s story.
“But it was an idea and it wasn’t a full story yet, and we talked for a while and she left,” Booth said. “And she came back and – all of a sudden – the story of the tailor was the story of a father and a son. It was a moment of deep transition musically, personally and aesthetically. And I was in it. . “
In Troubadour, the reigning king of the country Billy Mason is about to retire. His son Joe sings in his father’s band, but seeks to go it alone. To convey a story so intrinsic to Nashville, Booth says, it was important that the actors had actual stories that mirrored those of the characters they would play. So the Atlanta-based theater company held auditions in Nashville.
Radney Foster, who plays Billy Mason, recorded the top 40 country hits and songs from Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban. He had never acted before landing his role in Troubadour, he was not used to trial and error in rehearsals, where it is normal to fail.
“It’s really going to come down to my best efforts to present the vision of the playwright, composer and director to people,” he says. “It’s weird crashing and burning in front of people. I’m not used to this!”
While Foster is steeped in country lore, the playwright and songwriter hail from more contemporary worlds. But Kristian Bush says it didn’t take a lot of work to find the sound of another era – not with Google on its side.
“[I] came out and started typing the obvious stuff, like “country music in 1949,” Bush says. “So I didn’t really have to go through the trash. “
Bush wrote 16 songs for Troubadour, 14 of which were part of the final show. Foster says it was a bit strange at first to perform music written by someone else. But when he first heard the show’s title song, he was in it.
“Because this song is my life,” he says. “And I think that’s really the life of any other singer-songwriter.”