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

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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!"

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Betsey Denberg