Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup just might be the nicest flesh-and-blood examples of superheroes trapped inside the meek, mild personas of everyday, working-class heroes. If this were the early '60s, they would have secret identities while sitting in accompanying cubicles, typing feverishly, hitting it off famously and creating songs inside a Metropolis-like skyscraper.
Separate workplaces in different parts of 2015 Nashville might appear to lack that dramatic touch, but this isn't just another day at the office for these two of a kind.
They say wouldn't have it any other way, whether it's Stroup watching the pouring rain from her Berry Hill writing studio or Dabbs the family man negotiating traffic in his 1985 Wagoneer before taking part in a joint interview on June 8.
Thanks to Sugar + the Hi-Lows, the Clark Kent/Superman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman transformations are a remarkable revelation when Dabbs and Stroup finally get to come out and play again while showing off their duo dynamic.
These blast-from-the-past alter egos, also from another place, have more than luck on their side with the June 23 release of High Roller, the hit-the-jackpot follow-up to their on-the-money 2012 self-titled debut.
Spinning through their wax tracks is the aural equivalent of time travel, as the first record's nifty '50 sounds evolve into the fun and funkiness of High Roller, 10 tunes that capture the spontaneous combustion of that anything-goes next decade.
While raucous 'n' rollicking "Bees Left the Trees" and the title cut seem made in the shade to become swinging singles, Dabbs and Stroup know how to woo more than few, too, particularly with "Right Time To Tell You," which premieres today at The Huffington Post.
Sharing lead vocals with Dabbs on a ballad that presents the musical quandary -- "I was just waiting for the right time to tell you / But I think its better that you never know" -- Stroup said, "I think a lot of people relate to it because a lot of people have been there, on the hinge of -- you've got to talk to someone; can you communicate that or is better not to say anything? I feel like I go through that almost weekly with people, from little situations to big situations."
For High Roller, the Dabbs-Stroup songwriting method remained intact -- "bringing a tempo just so we wouldn't go through the internal metronome that we both have," he said. And though they prefer to work at a fast pace, keep it simple and "follow their intuition," she said the pair took more time and "maybe dug a little deeper with our depth in the lyrics."
The cast of characters from the first album to the second changed slightly, too. While Eleonore Denig (strings) and Kyle Ryan (electric guitar) returned, Dabbs and Stroup, also sharing co-producing duties, added Adam Keafer (bass) to the mix along with drummer Will Sayles, who provided his Trophy Room studio in Germantown for the recording sessions.
"It was very comfortable," Dabbs said. "We kind of made the place have a vibe that was needed to capture these songs. Part of the magic is doing this with the people that bring out the best in you and you're comfortable in it. And that happened this time."
One of the final touches was enlisting technical wizard Vance Powell, the Nashville mixing engineer who has worked with Jack White, Beck, Jars of Clay, Houndmouth and many more since 2014.
"It was really fun to see him sort of carve the sonic pumpkin when we brought all these songs to him," Dabbs said.
A father of two, Dabbs has built a life and a career with his wife Kristen, who doubles as the "best manager this band could ever ask for," as he wrote in the album liner notes.
They have their own indie label (Ready Set Records) while Stroup runs Milkglass Creative studio with Mary Hooper, a graphic designer and part-time songwriter. And while Dabbs has been a writing partner of Stroup's since 2007, he also has collaborated with a number of other artists while pursuing a solo career and hearing his and Sugar songs on the hit ABC show Nashville or others he co-wrote ("Undermine" with Kacey Musgraves) for one of the various soundtracks.
Right now, obviously, the focus is on Sugar + the Hi-Lows, who will take their show on the road after a record release performance tonight (June 18) at 3rd & Lindsley, one of Nashville's coolest hot spots.
"I think Trent and I are always writing but for this, Trent and I are on the same page," said Stroup, whose smooth-as-molasses alto can also be heard on impressive solo work like 2014's Tunnel (featured here) or among her successful song placements on more than 20 TV shows.
"We hope it goes as far as the fans will let it," she added. "I really enjoy performing as Sugar + the Hi-Lows. And so we're kind of giving it our best push, if you will. At least for me before looking to something else. I'm always co-writing, always trying to grow in that area. I want to make more records, of course. It'll be really interesting to see how far the fans connect with this and how far we can push it."
Trent Dabbs (left) and Amy Stroup of Sugar + the Hi-Lows. (Photo by Shervin Lainez)
Dabbs, who worked with diverse artists such as Butterfly Boucher, Andrew Belle and pre-Civil Wars' Joy Williams as co-founder of the musical collective Ten Out of Tenn, agreed as the release date approaches.
"Amy and I have been following this momentum and it only gets more and more exciting," said Dabbs, who experienced "the greatest moment ever" when he, Stroup and other Ten out of Tenn alums sold out the Ryman (aka the Mother Church of country music) in April in recognition of their 10th anniversary. "So I feel like anticipating the unknown is always nerve-racking, but when we've already received more than we would expect, it only gets better."
Sugar + the Hi-Lows strengthened their growing fan base recently as a supporting act for Ingrid Michaelson and Musgraves. Now they'll return as headliners to some of those same cities, where audiences will really get to see adorable Amy transform into sassy Sugar while the dapper Dabbs struts his stuff with guitar in hand. Joining their band will be drummer Jared Kneale, who returns after a touring stint with Musgraves, and bassist Eric Montgomery.
"I'm a little nervous but also excited at the same time just trying to see the people who already kind of know our songs instead of winning over a crowd," Stroup said. "So it's exciting but also nerve-racking. I remember at a Christmas show we had here (also at 3rd & Lindsley), we played with (Nashville actor/musician) Sam Palladio, and I always tell my friends, I'm like, 'It always freaks me out when people come.' I was like, 'Who's gonna come to our show?' And we ended up selling it out."
Maybe picking up a spoonful of Sugar's self-confidence will help the anxiety level go down substantially. But possessing a beautiful blend of voices on a song like "Right Time to Tell You," which they have already tried out during Michaelson openers, should taste just as sweet.
That's "something that we've never done before," Dabbs said, "is play a new song to see how the crowd responds to it. And everyone was responding more to that song than any of our other songs," which proved to be the clincher to include it on High Roller.
"I think the harmonies sold people, honestly," Dabbs added.
The exposure on Nashville, including snippets of Sugar songs such as "See It for Yourself" and "This Can't be the Last Time" from Season 1 to "Skip the Line" in April, also lengthened a chorus line of supporters.
While becoming friends with Palladio and other cast members, Dabbs said, "It's kind of crazy how true to life that show has become." And he really appreciates how the series has "opened a lot of doors as far as writing is concerned. Just for the recognition that the show has and how much longevity the songs are having on iTunes. So it definitely opened a door of writing with more country artists."
The Boston-born, Texas-raised Stroup, whose music has appeared on hit series including Grey's Anatomy ("Love You Strongly," "Backed Into a Corner") and The Vampire Diaries ("Wait for the Morning") also can't deny her delight for "a true music show" like Nashville that's good for business.
"You could have three placements on a show like, I don't know, Pretty Little Liars or something, but if you have one song on Nashville, it's almost a lot more credibility."
Dabbs said he even impressed the folks "back home in Mississippi" by appearing on a 2014 Nashville special called "On the Record." He, Music City mega-producer Buddy Miller and other songwriters discussed their craft, and series stars such as Hayden Panettiere (with Dabbs providing backup vocals), Claire Bowen and Palladio performed some fan favorites at the Ryman.
"It's kind of interesting that they've recognized the songwriters," Dabbs said. "I think that's kind of rare."
Having written all of Sugar + the Hi-Lows' previous songs by themselves, Dabbs and Stroup also made an unusual move on High Roller by inviting the estimable Barry Dean to co-write the title cut.
"I like to put myself in front of writers that are inspiring and I'm learning from," said Dabbs, a co-writer on Michaelson's "Girls Chase Boys" with Dean, whose songs that stretch a country mile were performed by a list just as long, including Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Jason Aldean and Toby Keith. "So as long as I'm learning, I feel I'm getting better."
Dabbs said he appreciates Dean's "shamelessness," adding, "He's kind of like a therapist and a writer at the same time."
Stroup, who said she's written previously with Dean, not only sees his "shamelessness" as a positive trait but also enjoys the "level of comfortability" he provides.
"He's not afraid to quote-unquote kind of 'go there.' He kind of explores something and maybe takes a different risk. If you listen to the song 'High Roller' .... he definitely kind of goes there," she said, laughing.
That is certainly rubbing off on Sugar + the Hi-Lows, who plan to bring a bit of shamelessness to their stage act.
"When we went to write the song with Barry Dean, we were like, 'Hey, let's write a dance move that is what you're doing, Trent,' " Stroup said, quoting the "sway, sway, scoot, scoot, scoot" lyrics from "High Roller" that are prominently featured, then brought to life on video by Dabbs. "We hope it becomes a dance craze. Like that would be amazing!"
Responded Dabbs: "Just saying the words 'dance craze' is hilarious."
After cracking each other up, Stroup collected herself to say, "We're shooting for the stars here." And in true superheroic fashion, to hit that target might only require a quick wardrobe change.
With High Roller sounding like a sure bet, it's time to pull out the cape and put your money on Sugar + the Hi-Lows.
See the official video for Sugar + the Hi-Lows' "High Roller":
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