BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Jennifer Nettles’ ambition cannot be understated.
In early 2014, she unveiled her inaugural solo album, “That Girl,” which didn’t yield a Sugarland-sized radio hit, but nonetheless debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and kept her on the road for most of the year filling theaters and small amphitheaters (she visited her former hometown of Atlanta twice – at the Fox Theatre and Chastain Park Amphitheatre).
Nettles, 41, explored her theatrical desires in February and March in that little theater district known as Broadway in that under-the-radar Bob Fosse musical, “Chicago” – a “life-changing” experience, she called it.
Summer brought the news that Nettles would star as the mother of a young Dolly Parton in the upcoming NBC TV movie, “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.”
Oh, right, and don’t forget, she’s also doing all of this with the company of Magnus, her nearly 3-year-old son with husband Justin Miller.
On Friday, the Douglas, Ga., native launches a new solo tour at Cobb Energy Center for the Performing Arts to preface the spring release of her second record, “Playing with Fire.”
Earlier this week, a sweetly cheerful Nettles called from her car on the way to tour rehearsal in Nashville – her current home – to discuss the sonic direction of the new album, why she loves acting and her plans for 2016.
Q: So the tour kicks off in Atlanta. Any reason other than logistics?
A: There are probably logistics to it, but it’s always nice to start out with a hometown crowd. It feels like a nice way to celebrate with each other and I do consider Atlanta to be a hometown crowd. When you’re putting something new out there, it’s nice to see smiling faces.
Q: What are your plans for the live show and how much of the new album will we hear?
A: A lot of this tour is going to be introducing my new record for spring, ‘Playing with Fire.’ The sound for this record is much more intentional of me trying to find my solo voice and establishing my voice than (first solo album) ‘That Girl.’ I loved that experience, but I recorded it when I had a 5-month-old child. Life was a bit more transitional at that time. This is a fuller sound and a clearer idea of what I want to be as an artist now, so it’s a fuller live sound. The production will be bigger than the ‘That Girl’ album. I enjoy the theater of the performance, anyway, and this tour is going to give me more of a chance to express that.
Q: What did you learn from your first year of solo dates that you want to change this time around?
A: I always let the music speak and that tour was much more organic and very streamlined in its presentation and I enjoyed that part of the performance. But now that I’m in another part of my life as an artist, I’m excited to get back to something more visually expressive, too. This album being fuller sonically and less sparse allows for that. The sonic fullness is going to allow visual fullness.
Q: Who did you work with on the album, both songwriter and producer-wise?
A: I did a lot of writing with Brandy Clark. We had a chance to connect as friends (Clark opened on Nettles’ 2014 tour) but I had the chance to know her as a writer and I came to love her as a writer and friend. She’s basically a gangsta! What I love about her is that her sensibilities are more traditionally country and what I bring with my blues and gospel influence is a nice marriage and a nice mixture.
Producer-wise, Dann Huff (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). He and I had been in conversation and I wanted him to be part of the record. He produced ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’ (Nettles’ 2006 hit with Bon Jovi). He has such a wonderful ability to take an artist and lift her to a different level.
Q: How has it been travelling with Magnus?
A: (Laughs) Having a kid changes everything in your life so it definitely changes how one tours. I am anxious and hopeful to get more sleep this tour than I was the last one. I was still nursing then and having him in the back bedroom with me… I’m a super light sleeper anyway. So I’m hoping this tour to get more sleep this time.
Q: Tell me about the move to Big Machine Records?
A: I am so grateful to say it’s been so smooth and seamless and also inspiring. I got to work with (founder) Scott (Borchetta) years ago when he was over with Mercury. He and I always hit it off, especially since I started this solo venture.
Q: With another solo album on the way and Kristian (Bush) doing his solo record earlier this year, what’s the status of Sugarland?
A: We’re still on hiatus. We’re both enjoying what we’re doing. When the time is right, we’ll see. I’m enjoying it. Kristian and I worked together for over 10 years so I’m enjoying doing something different. I’m sure we’re both enjoying doing something different. When you are in collaboration, there’s always a firewall there that there is another person whether you’re writing or performing, and it’s out of respect for each other and the music. But solo, that isn’t an issue.
Q: So let’s talk about your other career – acting. You had quite a year with a Broadway debut and now the Dolly Parton movie (airing Dec. 10 on NBC). What do you think those experiences have brought to you as a performer?
A: Broadway was absolutely amazing, It was life changing for me in so many ways. I grew up doing theater and I was always yearning to get back to that, and that this was how I was able to make my entree, I was just blown away. I loved being able to be back on the stage and enjoy storytelling as an actor.
Q: What about the Dolly movie? How did that come about? It seems odd to think of you playing Dolly Parton’s mother.
A: She’s 9 (years old) in the movie! I didn’t have to wear any aging makeup! It came across my agent’s desk a couple of times and I didn’t think it would work scheduling-wise because of making the record. But the universe always works in a wonderful and mysterious way and things shifted and they asked me to do a reading. Luckily, Dolly and the casting director thought I was a good fit. It was one of the most rewarding experiences. As a storyteller, it was so fun. As a singer you have 3 ½ minutes to tell a story, to get to the arc of the emotion. But this allowed me to experience it over a long period of time.
Q: You’re hosting the “CMA Country Christmas” for the sixth year (airing Dec. 3 on ABC). It seems like it’s becoming a home for you like hosting the CMAs are for Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.
A: It’s become a tradition for me for sure. I love being able to see the different bands and to come into people’s homes every holiday. It’s such a great family show. It’s quaint and nostalgic.
Q: So what are your plans for 2016 to support the new album?
A: I’ll be on the road for much of it. This leg ends around the holidays, and then I’m going back out beginning of January. In the summer, I’m hoping to do some of the fairs and fests and cherry-pick those that feel healthy from a physical perspective.
With Brandy Clark and Ryan Kinder. 8 p.m. Oct. 23. $46.50-$66.50. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.