Remember that "If They Mated" segment on Conan O'Brien's talk show?
Well, imagine what mild-mannered Nashville singer-songwriters Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup are capable of producing when they get together, though not in that way. After all, Dabbs already has a lovely wife, Kristen, and two young children, Veda and Cohen.
Dabbs and Stroup call Sugar + the Hi-lows their musical baby, and like any proud parents, they are downright giddy to watch it develop over the next few months and, perhaps, years.
While they might treat Sugar + the Hi-lows like their offspring, Dabbs and Stroup actually are embodied by these adventurous alter egos, the performing opposites of two "normal acoustic, introspective" solo artists (his words). That metamorphosis will occur when they go on tour next week to support the Feb. 14 release of their splendid self-titled debut album.
Taking on the persona of Sugar (whose father's pet name for her, Amy Sugar, has stuck "forever") allows Stroup the chance to show a playful and edgier side of herself.
"I think of it as... it's kind of like acting," Stroup said on the phone this month from Nashville, while Dabbs listened on a separate line. "It's like stepping into a different character, but you're still the same person. I feel like Sugar's a different aspect of my personality that maybe I don't get to express in the mellow folk-pop genre. ... It's 100-percent me and Trent, but yeah, in a lot of ways, we get to play old-school rock 'n' roll."
"With the right amount of whiskey," adds a chuckling Dabbs, who completes the thought by envisioning what a combustible combination Fireball and Sugar could make.
Maybe not as complementary as Dabbs and Stroup, who will put you in the proper mood, especially after repeated listens to this addictive album, which has style and substance. With eight brisk songs that they co-wrote, co-produced, and sing together, their rockabilly 'n' retro soul revue ups the ante of tamer acts such as She & Him, right down to Stroup's honey-drenched alto, Dabbs' slick guitar licks from a vintage amp, and his even cooler Carl Perkins vibe.
Though neither are originally from Nashville but were firmly entrenched in a Southern comfort culture, the two have been a successful co-writing team there since they were brought together in 2006 by a mutual friend at BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) who said, "I think you guys can hit it off."
That they did, churning out several songs their own publicist describes as "moody and subdued" that have received placement in TV shows such as Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Parenthood.
While that helped pay the bills, along with a series of solo albums and roles in the Ten Out of Tenn musical troupe that Dabbs co-founded with his wife, other influences from Motown soul to Chicago rhythm and blues kept summoning them. The idea of Sugar + the Hi-lows was conceived by Dabbs and presented to Stroup more than a year ago.
"I am a fan of hers to begin with as a solo artist," said Dabbs, who added Stroup to the Ten out of Tenn non-country roster, which has included diverse talents such as Gabe Dixon, Andrew Belle, Erin McCarley, Katie Herzig, and Butterfly Boucher. "And we write comfortably together. I asked her if she'd be interested in trying to write just a different style ... and just try to channel some of the old soul influences that both of us love so much. It was really easy, and the songs came really naturally. From there, we already knew the players to call."
Operating on a shoestring budget (they truly are indie artists), Dabbs (who also played acoustic and electric guitars) and Stroup did two days of live tracking, then took their time tweaking overdubs to get it right. Among a handful of studio musicians assisting were bassist Adam Popick, drummer Ian Fitchuk, Kyle Ryan (electric guitar), Eleonore Denig (whose strings contribute mightily to the lavish sound), and co-producer Jeremy Bose (horns and keyboards).
Dabbs gives credit to Bose for the water-into-wine transformation, along with mix engineer Konrad Snyder of The Brown Owl recording studio, who knew how to "take it that extra mile."
The first recorded track, "This Can't Be the Last Time," took about an hour to write in Dabbs' basement studio, called the Razor Room, and the others followed just as quickly.
"It was super ... just freeing and easy," Stroup said. "I feel like a lot of the songs just kind of came right out. Just not overthinking it."
Of course, neither were even born when black artists such as the Temptations and Marvin Gaye made their mark in the '60s. But Dabbs has vivid memories of his youth in Jackson, Miss., watching his father groove to a tape of The Big Chill soundtrack, "and he would always dance around like a white Bill Cosby. It was hilarious to me. ...
"But now that I've spent so much time away from that style of music, I wondered why, every time I heard it, it evoked certain nostalgia and happiness. ... I mean anytime I hear the Chi-Lites' 'Oh, Girl' or [Marvin Gaye's] 'Let's Get It On,' or anything that has that sound that ... I don't know, it just evokes a certain kind of happiness that I can't find in other music."
Performance was part of the package, too. His concert-going experiences began as a second-grader (Lionel Richie at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi), and ranged from James Brown to -- admittedly and unashamedly -- Rick Springfield.
"What stuck with me the most, or maybe I should say 'haunted me for a little while,' is the phrase... the blanket statement my dad would always say is, 'It's not good if you can't dance to it.' Which I never agreed with," Dabbs said. "I don't know, even now I still debate, but it's funny how much influence a song that can make you dance really has on you... on me, anyways."
About 200 miles up Interstate 55 from Jackson, Stroup's parents were raised in and around Memphis, but she was born in Boston, grew up in Abilene, Tex., lived in Muscle Shoals and Florence, Ala., and moved to Nashville to start her music career. Gospel made her soul glow, but the heart started pumping when she heard the words of Americana evangelists Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin.
Stroup also listened to the Beatles and Elton John and even today has a certain sentimental fondness for Frank Sinatra and the Lettermen. That came this Christmas after she received an unexpected gift from her grandmother, Jo Gee -- her late granddad's record player and record collection that included some of his favorites from the Big Band Era.
A child of religious parents, Stroup started learning the piano as a second grader before taking classical training at Christian-oriented Lipscomb University in Nashville. Granny Jo, who used to play the the piano for silent movies, left Stroup with pages of sheet music. One piece remains inside the piano bench still anchored in her parents' home -- Lionel Richie's "Say You, Say Me."
The coincidental common bond Dabbs and Stroup just discovered they shared makes them both laugh, and it's easy to understand why they get along so well. With refined tastes and open minds, they're simply seeking to write and play good songs, no matter the genre.
Dabbs has had numerous songwriting partners, including Joy Williams of The Civil Wars. He admires what Williams and John Paul White have accomplished in the past year, saying, "It's inspiring that people really are starting to gravitate towards that [roots-based] music again."
And though Dabbs considers his latest project a group rather than a duo, he and Stroup seem to belong together. They like the same movies and books and mesh so well that they even finish each other's sentences. Example:
Question: "How do you view Sugar + the Hi-lows? Is it an experiment, a part-time hobby, or an ongoing collaboration?"
Trent: "I think, for me, it's gone from what started as a side project into a full-fledged..."
Amy, laughing: "...operation."
Trent: "Yeah. We want our fans that we have separately as solo artists to connect with this as much as we are and let them kind of dictate how far it goes. ... We're ready to keep going, you know?"
That led to creating the live act, with Nashville drummer Evan Hutchings joining Dabbs and Popick as the traveling Hi-lows. Their first show was Jan. 17 at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles, then they'll go on a full-fledged tour supporting Marc Broussard beginning Jan. 27.
As far as successfully coexisting with a co-writer, Stroup remembers what she was told by veteran country songwriter Walt Aldridge, a friend of her dad's from Florence who wrote number-one hits for Ronnie Milsap and Travis Tritt, among others.
"It's like cuddling with a stranger. So if you're willing to cuddle with a stranger and write an honest song, it'll probably be good."
Sugar + the Hi-lows is filled with good songs, simple lyrics, and smooth vocals. There's the romantic "Show and Tell," the jaunty "Two Day High" (with the playful lyrics "I've been buzzing round your honey, and Babe, I want it all for me"), Dabb's dreamy take on "I've Got You Covered," and the smart and sassy "See It for Yourself," where Stroup lets loose in the second half over an explosion of electric guitars. The foot-stomping finale, "Skip the Line," leaves you craving more. With the album clocking just under 30 minutes, the throwback is just another pleasant reminder of a time when "long-playing" 33s were barely 20 minutes a side.
The rising expectations for Sugar + the Hi-lows make Stroup giggle, not quiver. "It's great for me to be able to write something with someone and then get to perform it, too. ... It's like icing on the cake," she said, later adding, "I've never been in a band, so this is a great experiment for me."
That excludes her brief but cherished participation in the communal camaraderie of Ten Out of Tenn, which Dabbs plans to continue.
"I think at the end of every year, I say, 'Aw, man, that was the greatest last tour that we'll ever have,'" Dabbs offered. "And then I just can't let it go. So we'll see what happens."
While Dabbs appreciates a group of 10 performers who are onstage "cheering each other on" and that "people can associate certain types of music other than country to Nashville now," Stroup likens it to "being on a team." And she's OK if Sugar plays on more than one.
Hmm. Sounds like another Conan bit in the making -- "If They Teammated."
Just imagine those possibilities.
See the "Making of Sugar + the Hi-Lows" video:
Images courtesy of Sugar + the Hi-Lows