Local duo records in Nashville

MIDDLEBURY — Two local musicians who took part in a marathon recording session in the capital of country music earlier this year are putting the final touches on a new Christmas album.
For a week in March, Matt Dickerson of Bristol and Susan Nop of Middlebury spent 12 hours a day in four different studios in Nashville, Tenn., known as the Mecca of country music.
The duo is set to release the new record of their own songs, “The Brilliant Whiteness of Snow,” on Dec. 15. Neither is a professional musician, but they’ve both got talent and wanted to see what they could accomplish when working with a top-notch producer and full-time studio musicians.
“I’m not a great musician, but some of the songs are good,” Dickerson said. “I’d like to have the chance to make them sound as good as possible.”
For his day job Dickerson is a computer science professor at Middlebury College. Some may also recognize him as the Independent’s outdoor columnist. For Dickerson, music is just a hobby — he has never been, and does not aspire to be, a professional musician.
“I studied piano with a jazz musician growing up, took some music classes in college, and guitar lessons,” he said. “There are several musicians in my family.”
For 10 years he was in the local blues band Deep Freyed, where he played bass, harp and piano. Dickerson and Nop also play in the local quartet Zephyr, with Kathleen Smith and Dutton Smith. The group plays Americana music and has played venues throughout Vermont, including Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.
After recording locally for many years with different groups, Dickerson wanted a more professional sound. He said the value of a good producer should not be underestimated.
“I have the bare bones, and a good producer and engineer will have good ideas,” he said.
Dickerson knew just the man for the job. He sought out Berklee College of Music alum Peter Wahlers. Nop concurred with the selection of Wahlers to work with them in Nashville.
“Peter was an amazing, professional, wonderful person to work with,” Nop said.
Dickerson plays guitar, bass, harmonica and sings, while Nop plays keyboard, accordion and sings. Dickerson hired session musicians to fill out the group’s sound, specifically with a lap steel guitar and background vocals.
Wahlers brought in accomplished accordion and mandolin player Jeff Taylor, who has played on recordings by Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, and Harry Connick, Jr.
“He’s top notch, one of the best mandolin players on the continent, if not the world,” Dickerson said. “We wanted to be as ambitious as possible.”
Dickerson and Nop got only three hours with Taylor, but they made the most of it — recording five songs in the process.
During the sessions, Dickerson and Nop recorded two-thirds of two separate albums, a total of 14 songs. The duo rounded out the albums with songs they had recorded in Bristol and Middlebury in recent years.
“One album is sacred music, to be sung in a church context,” Dickerson said. “The other album is Christmas songs, some religious and some not.”
The first record, “Streams and Sounds,” was released in August, after the duo played at the Soulfest Christian music festival in Gilford, N.H. Dickerson said that album has been well-received thus far.
Nop, who is a piano instructor and helps run her husband Lou’s business, first picked up an instrument at a young age.
“I’ve been playing classical piano since I was nine,” Nop said. I studied music briefly in college, as a sacred and classical music pianist.”
Dickerson and Nop first met at the Memorial Baptist Church in Middlebury.
“We started playing other people’s music, and then started writing our own,” Dickerson said.
At church, Nop said she enjoyed collaborating with other musicians.
“It encouraged me to take risks,” Nop said.
At first, Dickerson wrote all the lyrics and Nop put them to music. Gradually, they shared these responsibilities.
“It became more organic, and we started bouncing ideas off of each other — melodies and chord structures,” Dickerson said.
After attending a songwriting workshop four years ago, Nop and Dickerson played for a small group of friends. The performance was well-received, and the duo decided to record some tracks.
All of the songs the duo recorded in Nashville are original compositions.
For Nop, the religious themes in their songs are as intentional as they are natural.
“My faith is a foundation of who I am — the music is going to be what it is because it’s coming from me,” Nop said.
Dickerson was drawn to the roots-oriented sound of Americana music.
“In my own musical background, I’m drawn to Americana — similar to (songs from the movie soundtrack for the movie) ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’” Dickerson said. “Artists like Bruce Coburn, Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller.”
Nop said she is attracted to Americana because it is like storytelling.
“The music we’re writing, the Americana tradition, the whole arrangement is not written down,” Nop said. “It’s not like classical music, where every note has been played verbatim for hundreds of years.”
Dickerson is also an avid J.R.R. Tolkien fan (posters of Tolkien academic conferences adorn the walls of his office). He said the author’s work seeps into his songwriting, but has proved frustrating.
“I love the writings of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but I haven’t been happy at my attempts at that,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson also writes topical material, including a song inspired by the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“I try to make these songs timeless,” Dickerson said, adding that he does not actually mention the shooting in the song.
The duo are not signed to a label, so the all the costs of production — booking the studio, paying the session musicians, pressing the album — were all paid out of pocket. Likewise, Dickerson and Nop will be distributing the album themselves.
Sales of the record will serve as a bellwether for future projects.
“If we sell enough CDs, we know it’s worthwhile. If we don’t, it’s a reality check,” Dickerson said.
“It would be fun if a lot of people bought the album and enjoyed it,” Nop said.
Dickerson said they sell their records at shows, and also hope to stock the new Christmas album in local retailers.
But first, they’ve got to finish it — Dickerson is in touch daily with Wahlers, the producer, who emails new mixes of songs. Now, it’s all about fine-tuning.
Despite the high costs — which Dickerson pegged at several thousand dollars, Dickerson said he’s glad to have recorded in Nashville.
“We loved the process, and we’re excited about the music that’s come out of it,” Dickerson said. “It cost a lot of money, and we need to sell enough CDs to pay back the investment.”
Nop hopes the trip Nashville won’t be her last.
“People keep telling me it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Nop said. “But I don’t want to think of it as that — I want to do it again.

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