Prolific singer-songwriter of Nashville: The city, and the show
by Julianne Cassidy
Did you ever hear someone say, ‘oh, that has a ring of truth to it?’
Mississippi-bred, singer-songwriter Trent Dabbs is undeniably one of Nashville’s best-kept lyrical secrets. Releasing six-solo albums of “Heavy Mellow” [and a self-titled collaboration album with Ashley Monroe], as well as co-founding a musical collective group: Ten Out of Tenn, and forming a duo: Sugar & The Hi Lows, Dabbs indubitably “likes a challenge.”
And challenges he has met, yet conquered. “With Ten Out of Tenn, the first lawyer that we contacted said that it was ‘really’ ambitious,” says Dabbs. “It was pushed to the side, and seemed discouraging.” But, as a true enthusiast of the Martin Scorsese-documentary, The Last Waltz, featuring The Band’s farewell concert, with special guests: Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Ringo Starr [to name a few], Dabbs was hypnotized by the idea. “That concept of having these lead singers on the same stage together,” says Dabbs. “I couldn’t imagine them playing on each other’s songs, immersing themselves in each other’s music.” To which he then sought after his Nashville community of friends for reinforcement.
After a car-ride conversation with his wife, Kristen, they agreed to “make a compilation, to let people know Nashville isn’t just rhinestones and Gospel music,” says Dabbs. “There’s so much more of a sound.” Uncovering such jewels as Joy Williams of the Grammy award-winning duo, The Civil Wars, “our mission has thus advanced to the idea of being multi-instrumental singer-songwriters,” says Dabbs. “Artists who do it themselves, but come together collectively and unite fans.”
Although, Ten Out of Tenn has subsequently acquired requests from other cities, “like Nine Out of New York,” Dabbs does not believe in handpicking artists [like that.] “Part of this experience is just putting a microphone in front of our community,” he says. “That’s why it worked.” Besides spearheading their first “Boot Camp” for local/indie artists this Fall, Ten Out of Tenn is actively pursuing to mature their brand, in conjunction with gathering new members. To date, they’ve released four compilations, a holiday and benefit album, and DVD documentary, Any Day Now, of their 2008 tour.
Presently touring as a stripped-Pop duo with dreamy-eyed Swing, alongside fellow writer (and Ten Out of Tenn-er) Amy Stroup, Dabbs is relishing in the road, having just opened for Ingrid Michaelson’s Acoustic Fall Tour. “I always wanted a side project, or a band called The Hi Lows,” says Dabbs. “And Amy’s dad always called her Sugar growing up.”
With a self-titled album, and a newly-November debut of Snow Angel, Sugar & The Hi Lows are very satisfied with this Christmas album. “It’s a little hard to pull off a Christmas album that you’re proud of,” says Dabbs. “I love Christmas music, and it was just another writing assignment to see if we could do it.” Now preparing for their [Snow Angel] December mini-tour with Gabe Dixon
(another Ten Out of Tenn-er), Dabbs is anxiously anticipating wintery conditions, “as we were playing our Christmas songs on Ingrid’s tour, and it wasn’t even Halloween.”
Not favoring one over the other, Dabbs believes that all of his projects influence one another. “As easy as it seems to look musically ADD, it’s really just one sound infusing the next,” he says. “And that’s what I love about it.” Above all else, Dabbs is an instinctive songwriter. “Being a singer-songwriter artist is a hard thing to pull off, because you do have to tour,” he explains. “You come home, then try to write for other people.” Yet writing is what he’s good at. Great at.
Having written for, and/or co-written with, prominent acts in spanning genres, from: Country, Indie, to Christian, Dabbs has worked with an array of artists, such as Natalie Grant and Mat Kearney. “I definitely am aware of who the artist is, and have to listen to them and their music,” says Dabbs. Whether invigorated by them as a fan, or “hearing somebody and feeling like there’s something that can actually be helped,” both are promises for inspiration.
Ever progressing, “I do want to graduate with each album,” he says. “But, part of graduating is being the most yourself you can [on an album], and also having it connect with people.” Television song placement has evolved his music, as well. From “The OC”, and “Bones”, to “One Tree Hill”, Dabbs has been featured on a diverse list of television shows airing on all major networks- Fox, ABC, CBS, The CW and MTV, along with a feature film, Nothing But The Truth. “My song that was the turn-around one for me, was ‘Inside These Lines,’” says Dabbs. “They put it on “Grey’s Anatomy”, and it grew from there.”
However, no television show has compared to debuting #7 on iTunes top-Country chart, and #24 overall, for “Undermine”, a duet sung by Hayden Panettiere and Charles Esten, on ABC’s Fall-smash soap-opera, “Nashville”. Although not written on a back of an old 50’s Chevy pick-up truck, pre-skinny dipping, as portrayed by the lust-dripping couple Juliette and Deacon on the show, Dabbs and Lost Highway Records’ artist, Kacey Musgraves, had an “amazing” feeling while penning the song. Fondly regarded as one of Dabbs’ favorite writers to work with, “she [Musgraves] wasn’t worried about trying to be big on the charts,” he says. “The lyrics were just where we were, and she had tons of integrity.”
Recognizing that their song wasn’t built for radio, they never cut “Undermine” themselves. But a year later, after landing on a music-supervisor’s desk, “it’s been the biggest song of my career,” says Dabbs. Onscreen lovers Panettiere and Esten also have shown great admiration for the tune, publicly distinguishing it as Panettiere’s “favorite song” of the series, and Esten expressing his sincerest fears to “live up to the song,” to its magic.
In comparison to the Dabbs and Musgraves original, “[for “Nashville”] there were song changes stylistically,” says Dabbs. “But with T Bone Burnett at the helm [show executive music producer and co-composer], and Buddy Miller on guitar, I had no problem with the changes.” It was also a surreal experience for Dabbs to meet the actors, and be seriously questioned about the “right” way to sing his [and Musgraves’] song. “It really gave me optimism for where songs can go,” he says. Besides “Undermine”, three of Dabbs’ solo songs have already aired on “Nashville”, in addition to two by Sugar & The Hi Lows, and with a handful more from Dabbs’ slated for future dates. Likewise, Musgraves is about to tour with Little Big Town, and Kenny Chesney, and Dabbs holds high-hopes that their version will be heard.
Exploding his name into lights, “Nashville”, the show, has unexpectedly helped him gain the momentum that he’d hoped for when moving to the city from Jackson, Mississippi in 2005. He did not want to just break through as an artist, but bring “a ring of truth to it.” Dabbs wanted to pay homage to the songwriters and artists who, “write with conviction, do what they believed in, and continue to do what they believe in.” Furthermore explaining, “I feel like I’m getting to do that, and that’s pretty much all I can ask for.”
Calling attention to Canadian singer-songwriter, Ron Sexsmith, “he can sell out the Belcourt Theater [in Nashville], make records that he’s proud of, and he has artists (that probably in the world’s eyes are way more successful than him) cut the songs,” says Dabbs. “That’s a dream sequence.” Adding, “he’s getting the best of all those facets/worlds, it’s really about the weight of the song.” The song is always of the utmost importance to Dabbs.
Humbly appreciative, Dabbs says he could “never have chosen this path, as being as fortunate” as he feels he has been blessed with. And with a dash of humor, explains for the rest of his career that, “all I want to do is keep learning, growing, and evolving, so I won’t have time to assess where it all went wrong.”
Dabbs and his future write anywhere but wrong. Just stepping out of recording, he recently tracked a song he and Stroup had written a couple years ago. “It felt crazy that we’d never recorded it, so it’s one of those,” he says. “It’ll be another example of leaving the studio, and crossing your fingers, just hoping for the best.”
Unbelievable to think, the man behind the music’s best is yet to come.