“You see the thing about hometowns, people dying just to stick around, but I was never good at settling down.”
Trent Dabbs sings in the opening line of the opening song on The Optimist. Not only does the track, “Don't Believe in Stars,” set an aural tone for everything to come after, it also sums up Dabbs' creativity — he really is no good at settling down... artistically, at least.
While The Optimist is the Mississippi native's tenth solo record in 12 years, that's only one road on his artistic map. He is also half of Sugar + the Hi-Lows with Amy Stroup; co-founder of the Ten Out of Tenn artists' collective and Ready Set Records with his wife Kristen; a sought-after co-writer for Ingrid Michaelson, Kacey Musgraves, and others; and a producer for developing acts like Young Summer. Even still, though his songs have often appeared on Billboard charts, radio stations, and television shows, his name is far from a household one. And that's okay. “I just try to write the best songs,” he says, “and, if they get placed, then great or if they get on a album, well, even better.”
Wanting to write the best songs also led Dabbs to the co-creator of The Optimist, Daniel Tashian. Dabbs recalls, “I remember putting his band's album in my player ... and I remember the exact feeling I had listening to the song 'Starry Gazey Pie.' The melody is unreal, and I knew I had to step up my writing to ever be able to compete with that kind of sound.”
Step up, Dabbs did, and songs from across his solo discography showcase a sophistication that evolves, but never wavers. Now, some 13 years after driving through town mesmerized by “Starry Gazey Pie,” Dabbs recruited Tashian to write and produce a whole record with him. On The Optimist, Tashian's pop sensibilities are very much present, uplifting but never overshadowing Dabbs' own artistic aesthetic. Taking their initial cues from “Don't Believe in Stars” — which they had written and recorded last year — the two spent about 10 days writing the other seven songs and another week laying it all down.
The resulting collaboration is a collection of delicately lush and finely tuned acoustic pop songs. There's a maturity, a thoughtfulness to the work that is most evident in songs like “Optimists” and “In My Own Way” which gently lean into sentiment while thankfully avoiding sap. Dabbs also amps it all up, when necessary, as witnessed on “Closing Time,” “Disappearing Weekend,” and “Jennifer in Cursive.” Although that can come to him naturally, it doesn't always. “On this record, I could hear the bones of several songs, but it really needed the collaboration with Tashian to have flesh,” he explains.
For Dabbs, collaboration is what music is all about. It's why he “was never good at settling down” into his own artistic bubble. It's why he seeks out other artists he admires. It's even why he came to Nashville in the first place. Who — and where — would he be without sticking around in his adopted hometown? “I would probably be in small town thinking that I was a better writer than I really am.”