We all enjoy classic pieces from the Nashville Ballet, but those in the know are always raving about the modern pieces. The Attitude series is a renowned project that showcases modern, new works in the ballet. Frequently collaborative, the company combines dance with other aspects to make something already beautiful even more special.
A couple of years ago, the Nashville Ballet had a smash with Under The Lights, which is based on the works and life of Johnny and June Carter Cash. It was such a success they have brought it back for the second time. It features choreography by Christopher Stuart, an award-winning choreographer who has been with the ballet since 2003. Music is arranged by Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup, known professionally together as Sugar + the Hi-Lows.
Sugar + the Hi-Lows is a local Roots band in the same vein as The Civil Wars with a sound similar to Ingrid Michaelson or Anderson East. Dabbs has written a lot with Michaelson, most notably "Girls Chase Boys" and several cuts on the album featuring that song, Lights Out. Stroup has released a few solo projects that are of note. Her voice is like warm butter on mashed potatoes. Her 2014 album Tunnel was an absolute triumph. She showed how diverse she could be with songs like "Dark Runs Out" and "This Could Kill Me." When the two pair up, though, the sound they make as Sugar + the Hi-Lows is something beautiful. Combining their work with the Nashville Ballet will make for an absolute must-see.
The duo recently sat down with O&AN and talked about this project, their growth as artists, and what we can expect from them this year. We started off talking about why they chose to do this project again.
Trent: We were approached by Chris Stuart who had talked to a DJ at lightning 100 who would fit this whole concept. The DJ pitched us and that was cool. [Stuart] was a fan of what we did as a band and loved the idea of it being Johnny Cash songs, and we were like ‘Humm… Big icon… No big deal [sarcastically]. How do you do that?’ But we loved everything about the idea, just a way to create a buzz about it, to get people in that wouldn’t normally come to the ballet. It’s a way to convert people to the ballet.
Every ballet has a story behind it. The idea is story-telling through movement and motion. Amy explained a little bit about that process for this ballet in particular.
Amy: The ballet that we saw, Matthew Perryman Jones was a singer songwriter, and Emily Leonard, she’s a painter in town and creates beautiful pieces. The first one I saw of the attitude series, she was live painting while Matthew was playing his original music. Trent and I both went and had a conversation about how stunning it was. We were amazed with the interpretations of how Matthew’s Songs came about through not only the live painting, but also the dancing. Kind of the story behind the Johnny Cash idea was ‘Hey, let’s take a legends music and not only look at the relationship between Johnny and June, but how did he write the songs, why did he write the songs, what are the feelings behind the songs?’ And maybe take a different approach and have the story telling through the dancing. Even when we were arranging his music, we kind of went back to how the songs were written. Trent and I are both song writers and I’m fascinated with the mysterious process of writing a song. It was lot of fun to go back and look at how they approached the songs. You can, hopefully, kind of feel that in a lot of our arrangements and performance.
Johnny Cash is an absolute legend. Taking this music and arranging it would be a daunting task for anyone. The approach Dabbs and Stroup took on this project was respectful to Cash.
Trent: It helps you kind of relax, because you know that the weight of the songs, it’s there. So the responsibility to match that name is something that we still don’t think about - And choose to not think about. We just kind of had to let it be what it is. But it was bit overwhelming too, initially, but we just thought about how we can’t create music that doesn’t sound like us, so it wasn’t over thought too much as far as the sound, but the intention of the song was, from the history of it. So it was overwhelming, because, literally, I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like Johnny Cash, or at least they wouldn’t say it.
Dabbs and Stroup then shared what was most important to them in the process.
Trent: I felt this way about it last time. I really hope the dancers like what we do. I feel like they spend their entire world trying to really nail down the craft. And we do too, but you never know how they feel about it. You just want it to go so perfectly. I just hope we make them as happy as we felt watching them perform.
Amy: I think when you record music, something wonderful happens. But when you play live, it’s a different expression and process. And then, if you want to elevate it one more time, and play music while someone’s dancing live, that’s definitely a catch and release, back and forth that’s happening. I think that for us it’s about telling the truth about the songs and then seeing what happens when they tell the truth through dance. I think, for it to be believable, it has to be us doing our authentic performance and them doing their authentic dance. And what happens live can’t ever be recreated. What happens then, people experience it and see it and hopefully they feel something. Whether it’s something in themselves or they learn something from the songs, or they’re moved emotionally by the beauty of what they’re seeing… Anytime I have the opportunity to participate in something beautiful, that’s really satisfying. When we did this three years ago, it was one of the most gratifying live performances that I’ve ever gotten to be a part of. When they asked us to do it again, it was a quick yes for me. I just remembered how, emotionally, it being such a beautiful creative process.
Since no show is the same, they told us what they thought would be different this time.
Trent: I can only hope for subtle changes, like more emotive performances from us since we’ve done this several times now, ya know. I hope it’s more of the same. Like she said, it was such a visceral experience.
What’s different in you all since you performed this last?
Trent: I feel like we’ve become bigger fans of music. I feel like that daily. It’s easy to get inspired in this town. And you feel like you could always do better, but what inspires you only makes it more exciting. I feel like since this has already inspired us this much, I feel like it’ll only inspire us more. Live inspiration.
Amy: I would say we’re friends with a lot of them now, like Chris, Paul… We traveled to Arkansas with them, and Chris was teaching it to the company there. We were strangers the first time we performed it with them, we kind of met them as we were doing it. But now it’s different because there’s a friendship is there.
After the ballet, the duo plan to get back to their biggest passion; songwriting.
Amy: Trent and I are both songwriters at our deepest levels. This year, we’ll be busy doing that. We’ve been on the road. We always say we take two things on the road. Running shoes and a guitar to write. And usually the first day, you go for a run and then we don’t really run anymore. And the same goes for the guitar. It’s so hard to write on the road. It’s nice to be home and have the time to do that.
Trent: But she’s putting out a solo record, I’ve put out a solo record. We always do that as well. We always release our own stuff, then come back together as Sugar + the Hi-Lows, and people like Ingrid [Michaelson] or Kacey [Musgraves] will ask us to tour or do a pop up show. Also, we’re working with the symphony on something coming up, so stay tuned.
Attitude with Under the Lights will be at TPAC’s Polk Theater for four performances:
Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, February 10, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, February 11, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 2 p.m.
You can purchase tickets online, call the TPAC Box office at 615-782-4040, or visit the box office in person during regular business hours.
Photo from the 2014 performances of Under the Lights by Heather Thorne