Everybody has their favorite old song, the one that still commands their attention and affection even after hearing it a million times on the radio. For Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup, who make up the soul-powered Sugar + the Hi-Lows, it’s “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” by the Four Tops. “We were riding with the band the other day and had the iPod shuffle on, and that song came on,” Stroup says. “Everyone dropped their phones and logged off Twitter and just stopped to listen to it.”
Stroup is the Tammi Terrell to Dabbs’ Marvin Gaye, the Carla Thomas to his Otis Redding. As Sugar + the Hi-Lows, they play songs inspired by ’60s soul and R&B, as a means of trying to recreate that feeling they get when they hear Gaye or the Four Tops or the Chi-Lites. “Whenever I hear a song like ‘Oh Girl,’ it would evoke this feeling of nostalgia,” says Dabbs. “I always wondered what it was about that song that affected me differently than everything else.”
Is that feeling inherent to the Chi-Lites’ suave harmonies and florid arrangements, or does it have more to do with Dabbs’ own experiences with the song? Actually, it’s a little bit of both. Growing up in Jackson, Miss., he was exposed to a lot of old soul records. “My father always listened to these Motown and Stax records,” he recalls. “They were always playing in the background. And he made blanket statements like, ‘Music’s not good if you can’t dance to it.’”
The music he and Stroup make together, while not necessarily conducive to the jitterbug, the bugaloo, or the mashed potato, is a very different sound for Nashville, which is more famous for silly country and harmonized folk than for smooth soul. Certainly, Sugar + the Hi-Lows has more in common with perennial underdogs Lambchop than with recent Grammy winners The Civil Wars. Dabbs is aware that they stick out in their adopted hometown: “With something as classic as ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,’ would I go to a songwriter round and play that song? There’s no way. No one would buy it.”
Not that Sugar + the Hi-Lows is a reaction against any perceived Nashville sound or approach. Dabbs and Stroup are thoroughly entrenched in the music industry: Both are solo artists and songwriters working just on the periphery of the mainstream. Stroup released her full-length solo debut, The Other Side of Love Sessions, just last year, and Dabbs, with five solo releases to his name, co-founded and co-manages (with his wife) Ten Out of Tenn, a regular tour featuring unsigned local singer/songwriters. In that capacity he’s helped numerous Nashville artists find new audiences, including Ashley Monroe of the Pistol Annies, Joy Williams of The Civil Wars, and even Stroup herself.
Sugar + the Hi-Lows began modestly, with no other aim but to test their songwriting chops. It was an “assignment,” according to Dabbs. An “exercise,” says Stroup. The two had written together in the past, but wanted to see if they could turn their mutual love of the Four Tops and the Temptations into an actual song they wouldn’t be embarrassed to sing in public. First off the line was “This Can’t Be the Last Time,” whose title turned out to be prophetic considering their budding excitement for the then-unnamed and -unformed project. “I remember walking away thinking, ‘Oooh I want to record that song,’” says Stroup. “Or maybe Trent will record it. But later, I thought that’s not a Trent song or an Amy song. It’s something else. A few weeks later we got together again and we were like, let’s write a song like the one we just did, just channeling something from the old records both of us grew up listening to.”
The songs came quickly, but how to translate them into recordings that had the same pulse and exuberance of the music that inspired them? Ultimately, rounding up musicians proved just as easy as writing the songs in the first place. “If I’m writing an Amy Stroup song,” says Stroup, “it’s like I hear strings or I hear a Rhodes organ. But this was more like people were on our minds instead of instrumentation—people who had the influences that Trent was talking about.”
“There are so many amazing players in Nashville that it’s hard to choose, but I think Nashville is so incestuous that everyone knows everyone else’s influences and their friends’ influence.” That made recreating the spirit of the Four Tops not only easy but fun, from the buoyant backbeat of drummer Ian Fitchuk (Sarah Siskind, Griffin House) to the hyperactive string arrangements by Eleonore Denig (Andrew Belle, Matthew Perryman Jones).
Those recordings finally became Sugar + the Hi-Lows’ self-titled full-length, an infectious collection that highlights not only their songwriting chops but also their graceful harmonies. “Two Day High” and “See It for Yourself” crackle with rockabilly excitement, and “I’ve Got You Covered” unfurls with all the patience and care of Sam & Dave’s sublime “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby.” The duo’s enthusiasm for the project shows through in the snap of “Think I Said Too Much” and the exquisite melancholy of “Show and Tell,” reflecting the freedom they found in the creative process.
“I think whether a writer would admit it or not, there are certain limitations that they give themselves because they don’t feel that they’re able to cross that barrier,” Dabbs explains. “So the challenge was figuring out how you can say something simple and arrange it the right way and have it come across in a different way.” Or, as Stroup exclaims: “We spell out S-T-U-B-B-O-R-N in ‘Stubborn lover.’ What? Normally I would never consider spelling out a word in a chorus, but it’s awesome!”
Mostly, though, Sugar + the Hi-Lows is about simply conveying that same sense of excitement in songs that sound both fresh and familiar. “What I love as an artist and as a writer is a good song,” says Stroup. “Now matter what happens in the world or whether the industry is going up and down, everyone needs another good song—to bond with or fall in love with or whatever. I hope that’s what Sugar is to people: They hear and song and say, wait a second, I want to be part of this.”