A Conversation with Sabyn Mayfield
The art of forging your own path is one of self-discovery, self-reflection, and self-awareness. In a conversation I had with multifaceted artist, filmmaker, writer, and rapper, Sabyn, from his home near Nashville, Tennessee, I learned of a remarkable narrative that bridges the artistic mediums of filmmaking and sound recording, as well as the intersection between hip-hop and country music. Stepping into and inheriting an illustrious pedigree, including his Emmy-award winning mother, Laray Mayfield, and his legendary paternal aunt, Dolly Parton, Sabyn discusses the dichotomies that define his life and career; from growing up in Los Angeles and then reconnecting to his southern roots in Tennessee, to his creative endeavors that connect him to various figures in his lineage but yet continues to propel him forward. This is the journey that has shaped Sabyn in his own words.
Americana Highways: I read that you were born in Tennessee, the son of casting director, Laray Mayfield, and country music singer, Randy Parton, but you grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by an extensive mix of artists working in film and music and you, yourself, are an artist whose body of work spans those mediums. What was it like growing up in the Los Angeles film community?
Sabyn: Underwhelming to describe it best. And, I mean that’s not in the sense that it wasn’t exciting. I just think since I was introduced to it at such an early age that it was just my norm. All the people I knew worked in film or were musicians of some sort, or were actors, or models, or were some way in that world. That’s just what was familiar to me in terms of people’s professional lives. My mom mostly worked with the director David Fincher, so that was my first introduction into film and that set the standard I always held in terms of filmmakers and creatives. Even though there was this really high bar set, it was also very relatable. My life would be best defined by contrasts and 7:28:10 PM7:28:16 PMarity, because I’m from here (Nashville), and even though I was living in Los Angeles, I was back in Tennessee a lot for various stints, either for extended holidays or to stay with my grandparents.
AH: Your maternal grandparents?
S: Yes, when I reference my family I am generally referring to my mom’s family, the Mayfield’s. Musically I go by Sabyn, but my legal name is Sabyn Mayfield. I did not have any sort of consistent contact with my father until I was thirty-eight years old, so that would have been toward the end of 2019. I think maybe seven years prior to that, I met Dolly for the first time of only two times. We had a mutual business associate. Somehow, Dolly found out I was connected and extended me an invitation to come out to the opening of the 9 to 5 musical, and I met her for the first time. We have stayed in touch through email and letters.
AH: How old were you when you moved from Tennessee to Los Angeles?
S: First time I moved there, I was five.
AH: Was there a pivotal moment for you when you were a young person, being around various creatives, that something clicked and you knew you were going to be a creative, yourself?
S: Even though it always felt normal to me, I always felt different. Because I was a child and they were adults, it was just work to me. I didn’t quite grasp the creative juice and how that flows so to speak. I was also terribly, terribly shy as a kid; terribly shy and terribly insecure. We moved around a lot in positive upward mobility. Moved into a better house, a better neighborhood, but still moving. At that age, honestly, I was just trying to fit in. I really wanted to play sports. I didn’t play any instruments because I was so shy. Anything that I wasn’t good at, I didn’t want to do. I didn’t understand anything about ‘practice makes perfect.’ It was like this self-humiliation of even trying. Being an only child with a single mom, it wasn’t like I had somebody facilitating it. What I was interested in musically was hip hop. In the 80s, there weren’t any white rappers, so that wasn’t even on the table. If you were a white rapper, you were a joke.
AH: It didn’t seem accessible to you?
S: It didn’t seem like something that would even be in the cards for me. I always wrote, though. I wrote poems, I wrote raps, I journaled. I was also exposed to really interesting films and music; different genres and different types of filmmakers. I think when I got older and graduated from high school, I didn’t know what to do. So, I was like, I am going to go to film school because that is something I know how to do, or something I could figure out. I would say my pivotal moment, in terms of my creative confidence, was of the educational variety. I had proven to myself over and over again that I can do it, because that is what I keep doing.
AH: You developed your creative confidence as a student in film school?
S: You know, that would be a good way to put it. I know when it came time to do thesis and pre-thesis work – I had a much firmer grasp on how to elevate the quality of a film school production. A lot of kids were doing short films, and I was like, all the guys that I like are doing hip hop videos, so I’m going to take the money that I can raise and the resources that I’ve got and I’m going to do four music videos and spec pieces, so when I get out of film school I have a reel that I can shop. At the time, a director’s reel was a commodity. Now, people don’t really use it the same way that they used to do. I needed more bang for my buck. So, instead of shooting a short film, I need to shoot five really cool spec pieces, which I did. And, they were all kind of based in truth; my personal experiences, one of which, was having a child at 17. I have a connection with this actor by the name of Michael Madsen, who a lot of people know from Reservoir Dogs. At the time, I did a short film with him based off this book of poetry. After I got out of film school, I was floating around. I think about that time and the yearning to make music really came to me. I met with this acting coach who was a friend of mine, and I was talking to him about all of these insecurities and fears, and he was like, ‘do you want to be one of those people that talks, or do you want to be one of those people that actually does it,’ and I realized up until that point I was one of those people that did a lot of talking. I was a scared kid who would talk himself up and at that point I shifted from someone who talked about doing stuff to actually doing it. I take a lot of pride in doing.
AH: So, that’s what ignited the drive.
S: I was a troubled kid, man. I don’t mean, like, in trouble, or mentally unstable, I was just a pain in the ass. I was wayward and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I think around that time, I realized all the bullshit that I did at school, like copying people’s homework and getting my girlfriend to do my homework for me, or skipping school – I had actually robbed myself of the tools needed when you start your life. So, at that point I realized I had to play catch up. My education was life. I started learning about life by doing life. I got into my twenties with no skills and a lot of bad habits, but what I did have was my mom and a lot of people who were great examples. I got sober early. I have had little hiccups along the way, but being a sober man, and being in a 12-step program, has been something really powerful for me. That was something I struggled with a lot. So, being able to get on the other side of that and being able to have a clear mind to really start – I wouldn’t have had the ability to even pursue music at all.
AH: With the idea of becoming a rapper seeming somewhat unobtainable early on, you gravitated toward film?
S: I wouldn’t say that I thought I couldn’t do it. It was just a fantasy almost. You lip sing in the mirror, or you sing in the shower. It just seemed so detached from reality. It just took me a little longer to realize that it was something that I could grasp.
AH: I think the fact that, at the time, there was no concrete precedent for it is interesting and that’s what positioned you on a different path.
S: Yeah, like I like other types of music. Let me be really clear, I don’t know if I would rap if I could play the guitar and sing, but I can’t do either of those two things. But, I have strong songwriting and storytelling ability, and I can rap. What I am able to do, in my limited range, I have a lot of dexterity. My long-term goal is that I will continue to gain confidence and grow as an artist. But it’s funny though, back to what you were saying about not having a reference to follow my musical dream – it’s obviously easy to look back on it now, with my dad and the Dolly connection, it was in my DNA. You don’t just stumble upon the stuff that I’ve stumbled on and pick it up naturally like I did unless it’s something deeper.
AH: I admire your self-awareness. I think it is amazing when an artist can be self-aware, because I don’t believe everybody has the capacity to be. I think it’s a cool thing that you know what you are capable of and what you are not, and what you focus to work on. You’re actively trying to be the best version of yourself that you can be.
S: And I’ll tell you, I’m not 20. I can’t imagine any of this happening to me at 20, like I don’t think I would have had the capacity to handle it. I think I would have ruined it tragically. I think where I’m at in my life, I’m in a good place.
AH: What was your first gig as a creator or an entertainer?
S: I started working in film when I got out of film school. I had a big ego and literally nothing to offer. I had to get an entry level-position, but I was just arrogant enough that I worked my way up into a better position. I had a weird trajectory. I started out as a PA and then I got into grip and lighting, and did that for a while. Then after a few years, while I was doing that, I began to make my foray into music. I actually freestyled for a friend of mine, and he thought it was really good and encouraged me to get recording equipment. I had some stuff at my house that I barely knew how to use, but I would try. After gripping, I transitioned into casting, working with my mom, which then turned into some producing opportunities, which then turned into some directing opportunities. Those gigs were not necessarily glamour gigs – they were all things that I had to fight for. With the music thing, there was a booking agent based in Los Angeles that would book you, but it was all ‘pay to play.’ You had to sell a certain amount of tickets, and what you didn’t sell, you had to cover the cost out of pocket. My first show was at a place called The Knitting Factory on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was terrifying, but I pulled it off. I played a lot of shows around there; some totally bombed and others were once in a lifetime memories.
AH: I did read that as a part of your filmmaking career that you made some music videos.
S: One video that I did that I would say was a turning point in my creative field was a video for an unknown artist at the time by the name of Julien Baker. She had released a self-titled EP called Sprained Ankle and I shot the video for that song. She went on to sign a deal, remastered the record, and then released the video later, which did really well. That was cool because it was kind of a mainstream, really raw, gritty, unique video that opened some other doors for me.
AH: As a creator across various mediums, such a visual and auditory content, what has the experience been like as a filmmaker and musician to combine the two? How do the two mediums interact with one another?
S: It’s not an intertwined experience for me. Making films and making music are completely separate for me. However, when I work on a film, the music I envision being in the film, does play a big part. When I was younger, growing up, a lot of films had an original motion picture soundtrack that you could go to the store and buy, which they don’t anymore. So, that was always something that intrigued me. Getting the music that you want in your head when you are writing a script is really hard, and nearly impossible unless you are working for a big studio when you can pay those licensing fees, which I was not. I was really lucky with this movie that I did called Boomtown where we got music from Thirty Tigers and an artist named John Moreland, and the only reason that happened was because the guy who owns Thirty Tigers was an Executive Producer on the film. Even with that, John’s music was so perfectly suited to the film that it became almost like a supporting character. I can honestly say, there was no better artist, songs or sounds for this particular film. Back to my point, we wanted to release the soundtrack with the film because The Orchard distributed the movie. The Orchard was distributing music and film at the time. John’s manager has a concern with over-saturating the market so we never got to release the soundtrack to accompany the film, which was a real bummer because in addition to John’s music from the film, we had artists like Carlene Carter and Elizabeth Cook who were interested in contributing songs to the soundtrack as well. Now, back to the music point – when I’m writing music, I don’t think about the vision ahead. I don’t think about visuals down the road, or how it’s going to be released, or if it’s a single or album, or any of that. Music is a reactionary thing; I sit down and write to one particular piece of music. Whatever the pen writes onto the page is what I’m feeling and experiencing in that moment. Occasionally, I conceptualize a song ahead of time. But, mostly, the piece of music informs the content of the writing in the moment.
AH: I saw an interview with you online where you talked about how you pursued music after getting out of film school. You said something in that interview about how you got the music thing out of your system and then you turned back to film. What has brought you back to music at this particular time in your life? And, is that what brought you back to Tennessee?
S; No, not at all. I had considered moving back for a while just because I wasn’t happy in LA. I did feel like I kind of had unfinished business here. I was never really able to sow my Southern roots fully. I felt obligated to LA. My mom lived there and my son was there, I was working in film, and I felt all this pressure. That’s how LA makes you feel. If you’re not somebody then you are nobody. That’s what I love about the South – I wouldn’t treat Conway Twitty any different than the guy at the Conoco down the street where I go to buy cigarettes. Everybody is the same here and I love that. I had come back for Christmas and to see my dad. This is when I got news that he was very ill. I reached out but I was not sure that he would reciprocate it. I had tried to reach out to my dad my entire life but it never took hold. Those are facts. So, I came back to connect with him for Christmas and so my son could meet him. We went there, spent the day, and came back home. After the Christmas holiday, my son went to Australia for a semester abroad – this was pre-pandemic, like in January of 2020, right before the shit hits the fan. When he went to Australia, I came back here to spend some time with my grandparents, go see my dad a little more, and I had a buddy here that I was working on a movie with. The pandemic hit and we got shut down. I extended my trip and piece by piece everything was aligning for me to stay. It all happened so naturally. I was still focused on making film, but the pandemic hit. Simultaneously, I had always continued to make music. I had two albums, ten years ago, that were on CMT, that I had hoped were going to do better than they did. I had done them as a fictionalized group, like the Gorillaz, because they were looking for country hip-hop, which at the time, was not a mainstream thing. It was called in a kind of derogatory way, ‘Hickhop.’ In hindsight, I hadn’t even come close to finding my voice. During the pandemic, I decided that I wanted to do something for my dad, which turned into that “Oh Tennessee” record, which he suggested that I do something similarly with Dolly’s song, which I did. Those songs got sent to the record label that I am now with, and they asked me to do the “Halfway to Louisville.” They ultimately decided that they wanted to release this three-song EP. I met the right people at the right time at the right place. I hope this is the beginning of a really exciting adventure to where I fully get to express myself musically and to fulfill, which is ultimately, my childhood dream.
AH: It’s amazing that you weren’t even pursuing it and everything lined up like that.
S: Yeah, and oddly enough, the guy who owns the label that I’m with is a film guy.
AH: What label are you with?
S: sonaBLAST! Records.
AH: Did you find it challenging going back into the studio to create the EP while also incorporating your father’s side of the family?
S: Not really because it was a structure. Utilizing those samples to create a chorus, so to speak – we were able to build out the bones of the song really easy. What was really challenging was connecting with someone locally to record with. That was a little bit of trial and error. Each time I went, I learned a little bit more about how to record in the studio. Finding the right person to record with was kind of the challenging part.
AH: Would you mind dissecting one of the tracks? I know there’s a lot of different layers that go into it. “Oh Tennessee” features a voicemail from your father, Randy.
S: The voicemail thing is something that I have been doing for years. If you go back to classic West Coast hip-hop records, that was an intro on a lot of them. The interludes were always a part of it. I always had these funny voicemails from people – I got interesting characters in my life. That’s something I do, so it was kind of a no-brainer. The sample that I used in “Oh Tennessee” is a song from a promo-recording that my dad released in 1976 called, “Tennessee Born.” That song was written by his brother Floyd. Porter Wagoner produced the song. RCA recorded it and used it as a promo piece that was actually never distributed widely. But, in the years that I would occasionally Google Randy, because I always knew he was my dad, there’s a YouTube clip of him singing that song on Dolly’s variety show, and it always resonated with me. And, so, when I kind of had this idea, I took that clip to my producer, Jeff, in LA, and I told him what I was thinking about. The reason I had that idea was because he and I had recorded a few songs in the years prior where he did that same thing. He took an old recording and used it as a hook on a track that I rapped to. He sent me the track back in a day, so I wrote to it and then I recorded it in the studio here in Nashville, and later I rerecorded the song and brought it to the version that it is now. Based on the hook and the time I had with Randy – I knew he was going to pass away, so I wanted to have something that bound the two of us with a passion that we shared even not knowing each other.
AH: I want to talk about the intersection between hip-hop and country. When looking at the two genres some would argue that they are intrinsically different, but I think it’s interesting to point out that at the core of both they are the people’s music – often reflecting the lives and struggles of everyday people. As someone that combines both, what does it mean to you?
S: I think the intersection was natural. I have this polarity of being from Nashville, spending a lot of time here and knowing what my country roots were, while being raised in LA. What represented Tennessee was country music. And, growing up in the 80s on the West Coast, the burgeoning hip-hop scene was very prevalent. We lived in more diverse communities. I do relate to the qualities of speaking truth to power. I think there’s so many things going on in everyday life that people don’t really address. There are people in the real world, doing real things, in real time that we don’t talk about. What I have found in the intersection of country and rap is that when you have your southern hip-hop artists, that they do not have the same grasp on the roots of country music from a lyrical or reference stand point. Country artists nowadays who incorporate hip-hop don’t have the hip-hop chops, which to me is like a weird intersection. Now, you have this weird hybrid sound that has started. For me, when it comes to those two worlds intersecting, I feel like I have had such a unique grasp on each genre, individually, that combining them was effortless. Let me be really clear, they were combined with intention. That’s not what all my music sounds like. That was conceptualized with intent. When talking about combining the two. I’m a Gemini on top of everything; the Gemini sign is twins. The twins can be opposite. Mixing things, or being into two different things at two different times, that’s just my life. Hip-hop is about metaphor and wordplay, so it was very easy to make country references and vice versa. My country roots, and pedigree, run deep.
AH: You’re combining two distinct facets of yourself.
S: Right. It gives me dexterity and diversity that other people don’t have.
AH: Speaking of your pedigree, how do you step in and inherit that from both sides of your family and still forge your own path? Is that daunting?
S: You know, it was for a long time, man. In my career, a lot of people knew me as my mom’s son. My mom has a reputation, she’s very successful, and she’s very well known in that field. But, there was some distance with the Parton thing. Me and my son joke about it; it’s trivial. It’s become more concrete now, but I’m so removed from it that I’m not trying to ride anybody’s coattails or feel that I’m in anybody’s shadow. I’ve come into my own and this is a great foray into music. I think it’s really been nice to take a step back from film so I can forge my own identity. Film is such a collaborative thing that you always need somebody to help you, and obviously my mom is a huge casting director. It was a little too close for comfort. The music is entirely mine. I don’t need anybody to do it for me. Meeting my dad and having that closure before he died, I think it solidified and feels whole. I’ve accepted the fact that I have a career’s worth of work, and I don’t want to be a flash in the frying pan. I want to have relevance and I want to resonate with people.
AH: We’ve talked a lot about your own personal narrative throughout this conversation. In your own words, how would you say that your journey has shaped you?
S: I don’t know how I would say how it’s shaped me, but I just know that it has shaped me. It’s been challenging, but I think challenges are just part of life. I have spent so much time in my life looking back on things, but I wouldn’t change anything, because if I change one thing, it might change everything. I am very fortunate. I look back on the things I have experienced and the work I have done, and a lot of people do not get to do that.
You can listen to Sabyn’s EP Halfway There wherever you stream your digital music.
Featured Image by Shane Liem.