When Amy Stroup and Trent Dabbs started writing together regularly, they knew they were creating something special, but they didn’t expect the magic that eventually paired them for the throwback-inspired duo Sugar & the Hi Lows.
On the eve of the duo’s sophomore album release, I got to chat with the Nashville-based singer-songwriters about how they came together, being on the road with Kacey Musgraves and which songs of the High Roller mean the most.
Q&A: Sugar & the Hi Lows
Chris Vetrano: You both have your own solo projects and have seen a reasonable amount of success with your continued solo projects. Why did you decide to team up for the Sugar & the Hi-Lows project?
Amy Stroup: Trent is one of my favorite people to co-write / collaborate with in Nashville. When we started regularly co-writing, the songs felt more like a ‘thing’ than just solo songs. That’s why we decided to form a band and create a new sound that would be truly separate from our other projects. Also, we both like finding the balance between writing and touring. I like the road, but at the heart I am a songwriter. Trent gets that and allows me to make time for both. It’s hard to find that in a band mate, but that is one of the reasons why it works for me.
Trent Dabbs: Totally feel the same as Amy. I never felt this band was ever really a question because it’s always been our creative outlet for the songs we write that don’t feel like our solo projects. It just so happened that the songs from the first record created more opportunity for us collectively than separately. I think it’s important to chase the inspiration of a song and give it as much life as possible.
Chris: Your sophomore album High Roller drops tomorrow. How is this one different from your debut self-titled album? Has your sound evolved?
Amy: We took our time with this one. We wrote songs for two years and dwindled down to the perfect 10 that we wanted to put on the record. We also co-wrote the title track with Barry Dean, which was the first time we’ve allowed an outside collaborator in our band writing. Other than that, we called some of our favorite players and friends again, spent a week at a studio in Germantown neighborhood over in downtown Nashville, and hit the red recording light. It’s been 3 years since our last record, hopefully we’ve grown some as recording artists and writers and maybe you can hear it in the new songs.
Chris: Last year you released a live session album entitled Wild Desire (Live Sessions), which was a collection of Johnny Cash songs. How does Cash’s music inspire you both musically and did his music inspire the sound of Sugar & the Hi-Lows?
Amy: The Nashville ballet asked Trent and I to perform some Johnny & June duets while the ballet danced live to the music. They encouraged us to creatively reinvent and arrange the songs. Trent and I both dove in and had a blast creating the arrangements for the ballet to dance to. We had to record the music early on for them to practice to months ahead of the performance, so we decided to take it a step further and record it with our band and try to capture a recording we would be proud of. It’s kind of an unmixed ‘what you hear is what you get’ recording, which I think was very much in the Cash spirit. June and Johnny are both some of my favorite songwriters, it was an honor to perform them while the ballet danced.
Trent: Cash just embodied the entire spirit of truth and grit in his songs. I listened to nothing but the “Unearthed” box set for like 6 months straight prior to our performance. The album ‘My Mothers Hymn Book’ should challenge any songwriter to become more authentic. So if anything, learning Cash just made us want to step up and not be ashamed.
Chris: This spring, you got the chance to tour with Kacey Musgraves. What was that like and do you have a fun story or anecdote that you took away from your time on that tour?
Amy: Our band is also Kacey’s band so they were on the tour bus with her. Trent and I were flying all over and renting cars to keep up with the bus and the tour took us deep into Canada. Well, we decided not to get the GPS a couple of times in Canada with the rental cars thinking, ‘oh we have cell phones we will be fine’. We did have phones, U.S. phones… that said we didn’t have service in Canada. So we traveled all over sort of guessing our way to each show and somehow we didn’t miss any! How did we function before cell phones?!
Chris: What has the reaction been to the new music on the road?
Amy: It’s been great especially “Bees Left the Trees” and “High Roller.” Most of the time the crowd ends up in a sweaty, swaying mess during ‘High Roller’ which is our goal!
Trent: Amy and I never really had the opportunity to play new songs to sold-out theaters around the country before the Ingrid Micheaslon tour. We tried out “Right Time to Tell You” every night and people loved it and we decided to then to track it for this new one.
Chris: You are both based in Nashville, where you just played on Thursday at 3rd & Lindsley, what is your favorite thing about living in Music City right now?
Amy: Of course it’s my opinion, but I think it’s still the best place to record an album. The best players and songwriters are still here and you can feel the energy about this place. Also, holy moly all the new good food that is coming to this city is so fun to try. I can’t keep up with all the new restaurants.
Trent : I’d have to say that my favorite thing about this city now is the same as its always been. I love the artists who laid the groundwork here long before the buzz began. The creative energy that surrounds passionate people will continue to convert the naysayers into believers.
Chris: What’s next for Sugar & the Hi-Lows?
Amy: We made the record, so now it’s time to take it to the people. I’m looking forward to headlining some new cities for the first time and picking up more Kacey Musgraves shows later this summer. They are a great crew to work with and it’s been nothing but an absolute blast.
Chris: What is your favorite track on the new record? Or song that you’re most excited for fans to hear?
Amy: That is like asking, which child is your favorite?! Ok, I like “I Don’t Get High” and “Heaven” more because I still can feel how good it felt to write them when we get to play them live. They are super personal and special songs for me.
Trent: My favorite track is probably the first one on the album called “Bees Left the Trees” because it has a mix of playfulness and confidence. I think that song took our band to the next level. I’d also have to agree with Amy on the song “Heaven.”