By Marissa Gaston, Studio M staff //
“I write a lot of songs about people dying. That’s kinda weird,” says Dalton Stocks, who’s about play a sad song in his tiny bedroom in the back of his uncle’s house in Nashville.
At 19, the musician has a lot of material: surviving a car accident that killed his high-school crush, coping with his home being foreclosed during his senior year of high school, growing up without a father, being born without thumbs.
For Stocks, getting set up to play is a clumsy dance, wrestling a power strip from one wall, rearranging plugs and cords like a jigsaw puzzle, and then coursing them to the too-large amp hiding in the corner. Blue blinds and a whirring fan try and fail to keep the Nashville heat at bay. He doesn’t mind it too much because he spends most of his time commuting to Murfreesboro where he studies songwriting at MTSU, or to the library down the street where there’s at least internet.
By the time he’s finished and ready to play “Keep This Real,” an original, there’s literally only room for him and his music.
“I talk about my hands in the song. One of the lines is, ‘It seems I’m breaking expectations, the way I play guitar with my hand limitations,’” Stocks says.
In the womb, Stocks’ umbilical cord was wrapped around his thumbs, cutting off blood flow and impeding development.
“Because guitar is so dependent on chord positions and hand positions and because I can’t accomplish all of those, I thought that I would never be able to play the guitar past anything really simple,” Stocks says. “I stopped playing for a long time after I learned (a) simple little riff when I was 9. … I looked at my hands, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m never going to be able to learn how to play anything past this.’”
Stocks raps about other insecurities related to body image, failed relationships, mental illness and growing up without a father, accompanied by intricate beats, riffs and melodies he creates on the loop pedal as he goes, in the style of artists like Ed Sheeran and Damien Rice. His music blurs lines between pop, folk and hip-hop, drawing from influences that range from Glen Hansard to the Weeknd, but the deeply personal subject matter is all him.
“A lot of the music is sad because when I write my music, I write it to get things out. I’ll have an emotion, and I’ll put it down on paper, and then I won’t feel that emotion anymore because it’s personified on this piece of paper,” Stocks explains. “I write negative songs because I want to get that out. If I wrote a happy song that would be me getting that happiness out, and I don’t necessarily want to let go of that.”
MTSU audio production major and musician Cody Lavallee, 19, has been friends with Stocks since they met after an open mic night at Starbucks.
“I went to go shake his hand (and I thought), ‘How are you making this music that sounds so huge?’” Lavallee recalls. “I think it makes him way more unique and ahead of the curve … He has such a compelling story, and I’ve loved seeing him grow.”
Stocks says that until he started writing and playing music, it all just sort of festered.
“I’m terrible at trying to communicate what I feel through spoken conversation,” Stocks says. “Because it’s expressive by nature and because it is creative, you can sit down and work on a song for a long time and figure out what you’re trying to say, as opposed to in a conversation, you’re kind of on the spot. You have to immediately try to figure out what you’re trying to express. So that’s why I like music.”
He hasn’t actually been at it for very long, though. Four years ago, Stocks spontaneously decided to audition for his high school’s show choir, skipping all the usual steps other students took to join. He made it.
“When you’re in show choir you have to sing, which I love to do, but you have to dance also. I hate dancing. Hate it. But I loved dancing when I was in show choir because I loved the music,” he says. “So, if music can get me to do something that I don’t like, I think that’s a testament to how powerful it really is.”
Fully immersed into the world of show choir, Stocks resolved that he would pursue music as a career in whatever capacity, which emboldened him to pick up the guitar again.
“I thought, ‘Well, I want to play things, too. I want to sing, and I want to play at the same time.’ So I picked the guitar back up and said, ‘I’m going to do this. F–k that. I’m gonna do this.’ And so I did,” he says.
While he has yet to publish any of his songs and mostly plays open mic nights around town, he’s gearing up for multiple live performances.
“It’s crazy, it’s the most shows I’ve ever done,” Stocks says.
In October Stocks performed at Colors Unplugged at HDA Studios in Hermitage, Tennessee, a monthly showcase sponsored by local art blog Dream Technicians; he also opened for Lavallee, who performs under the stage name SMLES, at his album release show. Stocks has more dates coming up in 2018.
“Because of my hands, I can’t do everything that the next guitar player can do. So one thing that you have to do is find ways around that to accomplish the same means. It’s not a matter of if I can do it, it’s just a matter of when I can figure out how to do it,” Stocks says.
He adds, “You just have to trust yourself, especially when it comes to something so important to you.”
Marissa Gaston is a senior majoring in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.