CMA FINALISTS: The duo is nominated in five categories; Jennifer Nettles has a nod for writing the song “Stay.”

CMA FINALISTS: The duo is nominated in five categories; Jennifer Nettles has a nod for writing the song “Stay.” (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

Life is sweeter than ever these days in Sugarland. The country duo hailing from Atlanta has been steadily ascending Nashville's ladder of success, and this week, singer Jennifer Nettles and her bandmate and songwriting partner Kristian Bush find themselves at a new peak.

The pair learned Wednesday that they landed six nominations for the 42nd annual Country Music Assn. Awards, including entertainer, duo, single, song, video and musical event of the year. Only veteran Kenny Chesney topped them, with seven nods.

Winners will be announced Nov. 12 in Nashville in a ceremony broadcast on ABC.

The recognition comes on the heels of the enthusiastic reception for the duo's “Love on the Inside” CD, which was released in July and not only shot to No. 1 on the country album sales chart, but also made it to the top of the overall pop album ranking.

That's helped put Sugarland in the enviable spot of broadening its horizons at a time when much of the music business is actively reeling in expectations.

"Being not only our own worst critics, but also highly critical of the music we like and don't like, we felt confident in these songs and in the way they were recorded, so I think we knew that it was going to be received well," Nettles said. "We just didn't know how well."

Nettles and Bush are proud of their previous efforts, 2006's "Enjoy the Ride" and their 2004 major-label debut "Twice the Speed of Life," both of which have passed the double-platinum sales mark. But they believe that only in the new album have they fully hit their stride.

"I feel like this is the album I've always wanted to make, and I've never said that before," Nettles, who turns 34 on Friday, said with that broad, gleaming grin of hers Tuesday afternoon at a Santa Monica hotel overlooking the beach.

She and Bush, wide-eyed and energetic even at the tail end of a five-day promotional swing through Southern California, were squeezing in one last interview before hopping a plane back to Nashville for a very quick break before their national tour opens Saturday in Asheville, N.C.

Following the initial breakthrough of "Twice the Speed of Life," which spawned the hits "Baby Girl" and "Something More," Nettles and Bush found themselves under the gun to put out a follow-up. Both said they felt stressed writing and recording it as they continued touring to extend the success of "Twice the Speed."

"We took [our] time on this new record," Nettles said, she and Bush often overlapping sentences or finishing each other's thoughts. "We started to write shortly after we put out 'Enjoy the Ride' because we didn't want to get caught up in having to write it in two weeks, which is basically how we did write 'Enjoy the Ride.' We learned from our mistakes with that, timing-wise."

Two things are apparent on "Love on the Inside": how at ease Nettles sounds as a singer and the musical range of the songs -- the breezy pop of "All I Want to Do," the eerie Irish-cum-Appalachian folk of "Genevieve" and the stadium-rock grandeur of the Grammy-ready anthem "Love."

"We were able to go in and emotionally be a part of the ride, be a part of [each] song as it's being recorded with everyone," Nettles said. "It informs the musicians as they're playing; you each ride a dynamic wave with each other."

Added Bush: "Consequently you have albums that are worthy of getting a Grammy or the top of the pop chart. It's not a trick of the light. . . . It's because honestly the song was really good and the performance was stellar by everybody in the room."

To some degree, the expansive approach recalls the band's "Stay," an acoustic ballad Nettles wrote from the perspective of the other woman that was originally included on "Enjoy the Ride" and was nominated in the CMA's single and music video categories.

"What we found in learning from the last two records," Nettles said, "was that the places where we stretched into our history and tradition as songwriters, those were the [songs] that not only had the most emotional impact, but also the most response from our fans and from new fans."

Although their audience is growing and kudos are flowing their way, Nettles and Bush are dealing with one larger legal issue at the moment: Former Sugarland member Kristen Hall filed a $1.5-million lawsuit against them just when "Love on the Inside" was released, claiming she hasn't been paid her share of profits after she left the band in 2006.

The duo's lawyer, Gary Gilbert, has called the suit "totally baseless and without merit." Nettles and Bush consider it an example of an occupational hazard. "My wife said 'It means you must be getting successful,' " Bush, 38, said.

Right now, they're choosing to focus on more positive things, including the CMA nominations. Sugarland is the only new act to be included in the body's top category, which recognizes performers' live shows. Aside from Chesney, Nettles and Bush will be competing against George Strait, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban.

"Swooping into the entertainer category for the first time . . . it's a specifically good morning," Nettles said by phone Wednesday shortly after hearing the news. "These are all definitely veterans of the category, and . . . many of these are people we have watched and learned from. To keep that company is a pretty big deal. I feel honored, I feel humbled, I feel excited and I feel hopeful that it's just the beginning."

"It's wonderful to be accepted in country music -- that is our home," Nettles added. "But it's also nice to reach out beyond boundaries and bring other people into this kind of music."

randy.lewis@latimes.com