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Posted: August 7, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Just call me SugarNat

Once upon a time, way back in 1969, this tender, sheltered kid from a really small town went off to school, landing in Statesboro. That’s where Georgia Southern College, a tiny camp of some 6,000 students, was located. And that was it. There wasn’t even a McDonald’s! Fast food was an emporium on Fair Road called Burger Chef. No kidding.

Well, about a month into my collegiate experience, a popular singing group, The Lettermen, performed at Southern. I lucked into helping download their equipment and setting up a stage, thus becoming a "roadie." And the best part was that roadies not only got paid, but also got into the concert for free.

A few months later a virtually unknown female vocalist opened a concert in Statesboro for a rock group called Brooklyn Bridge, which at the time had a Top 40 hit. After helping set up that stage, I sat in the front row and listened as the vocalist struggled through a few tunes. Giving up on her, I walked out to give my ears a rest. The struggling female artist’s name? Linda Ronstadt. I walked out on Linda Ronstadt, and came back later to hear Brooklyn Bridge!

Funny. But over the last 40 years I’ve watched and listened as rock-and-roll nearly self-destructed with the 1980’s "disco beat." I saw Willie Nelson revolt and move to Austin, eventually helping convince Nashville to create the mega-industry which is today’s country music. I’ve seen various permutations of rock-and-roll come and go.

And today I’m grateful, oh so grateful, for oldies radio.

In classical music, Bach is Bach. A few centuries have lapsed, now, and nobody’s beaten old Johann Sebastian yet. Similarly, in popular music, The Who still rocks, The Beatles stuff from the 1960s still astounds, and I wish I’d gone at least once to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys.

But at any rate, as my wife and I raised our three kids, we took them to concerts featuring various and sundry artists. As a teen, my wife had seen The Who crush some guitars, and Three Dog Night. I’d caught a couple of "Chicago" concerts. Crosby, Stills and Nash. Sugarloaf. That sort of thing.

But a lot of water had passed under the bridge since either of us had last attended a real, live, first-class, mega-watt concert.

That all changed last Thursday night. We drove to Alpharetta and caught country music’s hottest act, Sugarland, as they brought The Incredible Machine Tour to the Verizon Amphitheater. Two opening acts entertained a sell-out crowd of over 40,000 as we made our way backstage for a "meet and greet" and photo op with Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, the Sugarland Duo themselves. The first thing that hit me was how genuine those two folks are; they’re tuned to the fact that fans make or break their success, and it shows. They get it.

Sugarland pressed flesh with several hundred fans for nearly an hour, and then took the stage for another couple of hours of nonstop rockin’.

And let me tell you, they rocked.

We sat 12 rows from the stage, directly under 36 sound speakers and three horns, and directly in front of another 24 speakers. I quickly rediscovered something about live concerts.

They’re LOUD!

The Incredible Machine Tour set is an amazing thing. It’s three stories tall, prescribing gears, whistles, steam vents, and with lights and smoke it’s a far cry from the humble stage microphones, stands and monitors I set up in 1969 for "The Lettermen." The Incredible Machine is more like a galaxy far, far away.

In the midst of it Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush wove their magical vocals, cavorting from one side of the stage to the other, their physicality and electric emotion drawing fans into the act, and at the same time feeding off that energy themselves.

Sugarland starts and ends with Nettles and Bush. The duo began right here in Georgia, not far away in Decatur. And unlike so many who find stardom, this pair remembers their roots, and Thursday night brought it all home to their Georgia fans.

The good old days were, in fact, good. The experiences I had as a tenderfoot with rock-and-roll were as eye-opening, in their own right, as was Thursday’s Sugarland concert. Back in 1969 anyone envisioning a set and sound demonstrated by The Incredible Machine Tour would’ve probably been written off as crazy.

Margaritaville’s Jimmy Buffet once sang that if we weren’t all crazy we would go insane. After hearing them in person, you can call me crazy about Sugarland. Or you can call me a teenage rocker trapped in an old man’s body.

Better yet, just call me SugarNat.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.

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