Trent Dabbs may well be the hardest working man in Nashville. As a consummate collaborator, Dabbs has co-written tunes with Ashley Monroe, Mat Kearney, Gabe Dixon, Katie Herzig, Matt Wertz, Dave Barnes, Matthew Perryman Jones, and others. In that same community-minded spirit, Dabbs founded the Ten Out of Tenn collective – with help from his wife. Each year, TOT culls 10 of Nashville’s finest indie singer/songwriters to release a compilation album and, generally, do some touring together. It’s a brilliant and entertaining way to show the rest of the world the full spectrum of music that Nashville has to offer.

In his life as a solo artist, Dabbs cranks out fantastic albums of pop/rock gems. From his first release, 2004’s Quite Often, through this year’s Southerner (which is now available on NoiseTrade), Dabbs has managed to get at the heart of the matter while never forsaking a nice, catchy melody in the process. Tunes like “Riverbell Garden,” “January Lights,” and “Leave to See” all stand as testaments to his skill as a quality craftsman.
With this ability in his pocket – and a grand vision in his eyes – it’s no wonder why so many other artists congregate around him. It’s also no wonder why his songs continue to find comfortable spots in film and television shows including Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, and Pretty Little Liars, among others. And, really, he’s just getting started.
NoiseTrade: Southerner seems to draw from a lot of different wells, and yet it maintains its inherent Trent-ness all the way through. What’s involved in your creative process? Do you listen to other artists to get the juices flowing or do you have a pretty constant source to tap?
Trent Dabbs: I always draw inspiration from different sources. I tend to hear song titles in simple conversations and melodic inspiration from random albums. However, the first song on the album started from a guitar hook that fell out of the sky.
NT: There aren’t a whole lot of singer/songwriters in the mainstream crafting pop/rock songs that manage to be catchy while avoiding cliché. Neil Finn comes to mind, but he’s not necessarily mainstream. Sheryl Crow almost makes the cut. Why is it, do you think, that it’s so hard for truly great music to cut through the noise and find a wide audience?
TD: I think we are dealing with way more quantity than quality these days. It’s a gift that anyone can make an album from home and release it into the world. However, I don’t believe that means everyone should be releasing albums. I think that contributes to the “noise” you mentioned. For my taste of influence, sincerity wins always. All of my heroes bring sincerity and honesty to the table. Honestly, I think the main reason certain artists are never heard is because they tell you truth. As much as people say they love hearing about the truth in music, it doesn’t quite sell. If the truth hurts, then people would rather avoid it. I mean, I want to escape and hear meaningless pop music myself sometimes.
NT: At this point, if you could hitch your wagon to a major label, would you? Or are you content with the rigors – and freedom – of life as an independent?
TD: I love being independent and owning my own material. I do believe it is important for an artist to have a team and I have been fortunate enough to build that team around me. I guess I still haven’t heard tons of pleased artists on labels, but I wouldn’t cancel out partnering with a label if I could speak into the process and find a deal that really made sense. I think it’s important as an artist to define your goals early on … do you want to be a household name and to have the fame or do you want to be able to make a living doing what you love? Many people have the misperception that if an artist is “independent,” then they are a struggling artist; that is not in any way true in this day and age. I know many artists that have had great offers from labels and have chosen to remain independent and have solid careers. It’s not like I have record labels knocking down my door, but, at the same time, I haven’t waited around to further my career and haven’t sought out a label since my first deal in 2005. Since then, I’ve released six albums independently and continue to find more success with each release.
NT: It’s not enough that you are nursing a solid solo career, as well as guiding the Ten Out of Tenn project. Now you have a new collaborative project with Amy Stroup – Sugar + the Hi-Lows. You must be a born collaborator, because that’s a lot of music to manage. How do these things relate to each other, artistically and professionally? And what does each bring to you on a personal level?
TD: Orson Welles said, “We must treasure old age and give genius the capacity to function in old age.” By no means am I saying I am genius, but he was, and it excites me to think that I can still grow daily as an artist. All I want to do is write and be inspired and record the more I learn. This project Sugar + the Hi-Lows was a writing assignment I gave myself and it has turned into the most fun project ever. My father always made blanket statements like “music isn’t good if you can’t dance to it,” so I wanted to see how I could create some style of old-school music. So all of my projects relate artistically and professionally because they are a part of me and my writing. I met pretty much all the artists on all volumes of T.O.T. by way of co-writing. This city is built on songs and that’s what it all comes down to for me. I was a born collaborator because it takes someone else to inspire me and then I invite them into the process.
I know people say not to stretch yourself too thin, but I couldn’t care less about that theory because as long as I am stretching, I’m growing. Being stubborn doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Six years ago, we were told that the idea of Ten Out of Tenn was too lofty and it probably wouldn’t fly here in Nashville. Flash forward to the present and I’m on a speaking panel with the same guy at a conference talking about how our brand became what it is today. I think this career is like any other and the hardest working rise to the top. That doesn’t mean the most talented rise to the top, but, rather, the ones trying to kick up dust rather than complain about how dusty it is.
NT: Speaking of, you’re gearing up for more action with Ten Out of Tenn, including a new compilation release. What’s happening and what’s your long-term vision for that project?
TD: We are so excited about this volume and the tour. We leave next month and set out to give people a show that will hopefully encourage and inspire. Most have these artists from volume four have been a part of this project in the past. It has been amazing to see relationships built from this group since the tour – watching artists collaborate in writing, recording, touring, etc. Not only that, I know that many solid friendships have been formed. When I released Southerner, my fellow TOT’ers all rallied and helped to get the word out and I know I would do the same for any of them. I believe that this project is more than a compilation and a tour every year. And, as much as our goal has been to change the perception of Nashville’s music scene, I think it is more than that. It’s about building relationships and creating a community of artists that support each other. We are all in this together and if we can’t learn to celebrate each others’ successes and grow from each others’ talents, then it’s all in vain anyway. I’m not sure what the future holds for TOT; we just want to continue to promote good music that is coming out of Nashville and, hopefully, continue to build the brand so we can bring new artists in and tour when the time is right.
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