Sugar and the Hi Lows' Trent Dabbs on Nashville: "You Can Throw a Rock and Hit Somebody That Wrote Your Favorite Song"

The Nashville musical duo of Amy Stroup and Trent Dabbs, better-known as Sugar and the Hi Lows, have a new sort of bluesy soul. Their sound pays homage to the classics of yesteryear, but their modern spin makes for an infectious sound. Even if you've never heard their record, you probably know their songs.

Over the past few years, the duo's work has been featured

on such shows as Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Parenthood.

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Earlier this year, the duo released its debut self-titled album, made up of a collection of songs that seamlessly combines modern indie pop with retro rockabilly soul. Simply put, it's the type of music that just makes you want to dance. In a phone conversation with Dabbs from his Nashville home, we spoke about the Sugar and the Hi Lows' upcoming holiday album, Taylor Swift, and the Nashville music community.

New Times: Hi! Are you in the middle of tour right now? Or back at home? 

Trent Dabbs: We're at home, in the middle of rehearsing and mastering our Christmas record. We tracked the album a couple of months ago, and we've just been mixing it. But today is the final master day, so we can have it ready for the tour and everything. 

Oh wow. That's neat. Can you tell me any of the songs that will be on it? 

Yeah, a few. "Home on the Holidays," "Snow Angel," "Jingle Bells," "Naughty or Nice," and "Sugar Cookie."

How did you decide to put out a Christmas album? Especially so quickly after your debut album [Sugar and the Hi Lows] came out...

Well, we write quite a bit, and I think, um, just so we could kind of stay focused on writing. Even on tour, we were trying to write, which is a hard thing to actually pull off. But both of us are actually big fans of holiday albums. I know some people have a tough time with those, but we thought it would be a good challenge to see if we could pull off a Christmas record that we'd be proud of it. 

I think they're great. Have you heard the She & Him holiday album?

Yeah. Yeah, I have it on vinyl. I love it.

So, to get a little back story. How did you guys meet?

Let's see. It was at least six years ago. We were introduced through a friend who worked at BMI. Beth Mason said to Amy, "You should write with Trent. I think stylistically you two would enjoy writing with each other." So we met and just sat at the kitchen table, started writing, and one of the first songs that we had written landed on a TV show. It was great. It's always been easy. And that's kind of a hard thing to come by. I mean, we've both cowritten a ton of times living in Nashville with different people. So it's like you go on enough blind dates, [laughs] musical blind dates, and you know what's comfortable.

Obviously Nashville has a big music scene. But what's the indie scene like? Is there one? 

I mean, it's amazing. It has everything. It's definitely tripled in size over the last several years. People like Jack White and the Black Keys, and several others are just heading this way because it's affordable and has such a great community of writers and artists.

My wife and I started Ten out of Tenn around eight years ago, which is ten solo artists who all do a tour together once a year and play on each other's songs, sell merch collectively, like ten of our albums together for a certain price. It's like a live iPod shuffle just to let people know that Nashville isn't just gospel and country. There's tons of independent artists that need to be spotlighted. But yeah, it's an eclectic scene. There's everything from country to gospel to singer/songwriter and rock. It's pretty much across the board. You can throw a rock and hit somebody that wrote your favorite song.  

What are some of the musicians that have been coming out of Nashville that you're listening to? 

That's a good question. There is this band called Leagues; the singer for that band is Thad Cockrell, and I'm definitely a fan of his. This singer/songwriter named Jill Andrews that I just wrote with who I think is great. I mean, there are people that have been here that are now just putting out a record that in no time will be recognized more, like Holly Williams. [pause] Let me think... Oh! Rayland Baxter -- I really like him a lot. Caitlin Rose, Madi Diaz -- she was on Ten out of Tenn. She's really great.

It seems like there is so much happening in Nashville. Obviously, there is a lot going on in L.A., but Nashville feels more like a community. At least that's the impression that I'm getting from you...

Oh yeah. Definitely. Nashville is the best place to move if you want to hone your craft. And you get here and realize how many talented people there are, which can either be a little debilitating and depressing [laughs], because you realize how many people can play your song in five minutes, or it can be inspiring, because you realize how you can surround yourself with better musicians that can play on your albums.

On the topic of inspiration, what sort of musical influence or inspiration did you have growing up? 

Well, this whole project [Sugar and the Hi Lows] was based off my father saying, "Music isn't good if you can't dance to it." He would make broad generalizations like that while I was growing up and have stacks of records playing in the background. Stuff like Motown, Marvin Gaye, Soul, James Brown, The Big Chill soundtrack. 

Ah. Such a great movie soundtrack. 

It is! I mean, honestly, that's kind of what inspired my love for film and TV. Having songs that went with the picture. That's always been a dream sequence for me. And that's been like the greatest ride ever, getting songs on these shows. We both have. But yeah, all those Motown artists are such big influences, especially on this project. For my solo stuff, Neil Young is my favorite.

In reference to your dad's quote, what do you think about this whole trend of electronic dance music?

Well, I think I can pretty much find a respect for any kind of music. And I have kind of tried to do that more, just because you never know how music is going to evolve. If I need to learn more about that type of music because I'll be writing it later, I'm willing to do that. But for my ears, nothing has been more pleasing than roots music. Ya know, like vinyl records and actual players playing organic instruments. I love it. 

Like here, if you come to Nashville, you can watch a writer's round, which is where someone will play an acoustic and will talk about the song that they've written. And you can get a sense of the song and how it's written -- all the elements, the lyrics, the melody, the instruments. And to me, that's entirely more exciting. The other [EDM] seems to just be entertainment. I think more about all the elements, rather than just a sound. A friend of mine told me, it's actually Mat Kearney's uncle, but he said, "If your vibe outweighs your content, then you're destined for novelty." And that makes perfect sense to me. A lot of the newer pop stuff is just this sound. It's just a vibe. Because of that, I don't think it will stay. 

Oh sure. There isn't a lot of sustainability in the pop music industry at all. To use Taylor Swift as an example, who is talented but seems to be going more towards the pop music end of things. Do you think she's straying from her talent? 

She's definitely becoming more pop-music-oriented. I mean, she's kind of always been pop. But this new stuff is just straight-up radio pop. As a fan, ya know, if I was familiar with her whole catalog, maybe that would be disappointing. But from an artist perspective, I totally get trying to evolve. She probably gets bored of her own sound and wants to graduate into something else. I think it's good to keep it interesting. That's why Amy and I have solo careers and our stuff doesn't sound anything like this project. In order to keep the music interesting and kind of grow, we both wanted to do this for that reason.

Talking about Taylor Swift, though... it's crazy because she put one of my songs that was on my solo record on her playlist. It was like she was selling her album, and then put together a playlist of various artists' songs to go along with it. And I couldn't even get in touch with her to thank her. It's crazy. [laughs] She lives here. She likes my song. It became my biggest-selling song just by word of mouth. I was like, "How did she even hear this song? It's crazy!"

So you're heading back out on tour soon with Ingrid Michaelson. Do you like being out on the road? Is it really difficult with family?

It's definitely difficult with family, because I don't want to feel like I'm connecting in one place and not another. So that's why I try to like keep our runs as, I don't want to say short, but just balanced in all areas. But I love touring; I think it's essential. Just like I was saying earlier, if people want to know what the song is about, the live experience is so much stronger.

Do you feel like touring is essential in order to get your music out, as opposed to some artists who just rely on pushing their stuff via the internet?

Yeah, I mean, it's kind of interesting because now that times are harder financially, people have to do five times as much as they used to just get the same revenue. Ya know? So I feel like there's two different kinds of music that's coming out. One that is just disposable, someone is just putting it out because they can and it's getting mixed in with the artists that are trying to get it out there and make it a living. Um, I kinda go both ways as far as what I respect about that because it is kind of nice that you can create something and just put it on iTunes. However, it clutters it and kinda gets oversaturated, making it harder for the other ones to surface. But I think the good music always surfaces. I think the attitude with touring for most people is not like now or never; it's like now or whenever.

Do you think that because the whole "rock star lifestyle" where people were once making $100,000 a year doesn't exist anymore, it allows for more musicians to emerge?

Yes. Definitely. We played like nine times at SXSW this year. It was just an ocean of people. It's so overwhelming, because it used to be like "OK, we're going to play one show and hope that industry folks show up." But now it gets so oversaturated, it's that much harder to get anyone to show up, even with playing nine shows. So you just have to be reminded more and more what you're doing this for.

With the way the current industry is, how do you stay positive and constantly remind yourself of what you're doing this for? 

That's a good question. I think I just stay inspired. Ya know? Do my best to fight any sense of jadedness on any level and continue to be a fan of music. Keep feeding on inspiration that gives me that childlike delusion of hoping that it will reach as many people as I'd love it to.

Ingrid Michaelson with Sugar and the Hi Lows. Tuesday, October 16, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $25. For more info and tickets, click here.

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Betsey Denberg