Dave Cobb: Building Southern Family One Record At A Time

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Dave Cobb: Building <i>Southern Family</i> One Record At A Time

The web of producer Dave Cobb devotees is as far-reaching as a big family tree in a small Southern town—everybody knows somebody who toured with somebody who can tell you firsthand what a genius Cobb is in the studio. There’s Sturgill Simpson, who may be seen as the second coming of country’s hey-day now but began opening up for fellow Cobb collaborator Jason Isbell on the road and at The Ryman. Once Simpson began his headlining run, a young Anderson East headed out on the road with him—building a fan base out of Simpson’s die-hard followers months before his Cobb-produced debut Delilah (the first on Cobb’s new Elektra imprint) was released last summer. By the time Paste caught up with East at SXSW last year, he was sharing a van with Kristin Diable—yep, you guessed it, another artist behind another record with Cobb’s name in the liner notes.

Cobb’s forthcoming compilation record is a testament to the artistic value of this kind of familial connection, be it the connection with a blood relative or a neighbor or a damn good musician. Aptly titled Southern Family, it features contributions from longtime collaborators alongside new voices, peppered with headlining artists who fit just as snugly within the tracklist.

Identifying what Southern Family is all about begins and ends with Dave Cobb: where the forthcoming record finds its roots, where Cobb found his roots, and where he’s already growing a music-making Nashville family.

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The first time someone told Cobb that he should compile a concept record, he laughed them off of the phone.

“There was a record called White Mansions, which is a concept written by this English guy, Paul Kennerly, who had never actually been to America at the time, about the American South during the Civil War,” he says. It’s easy to see why his view of a compilation record was lofty when you consider that the blueprint included the likes of Waylon Jennings and producer credits from Glyn Johns. “That’s always been my favorite album. That’s really always been the record that drew me into country music.”

But when you think about the arsenal of talent he had on speed dial—Southern Family includes contributions from Isbell, Simpson, Chris and Morgane Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings and Anderson East, all of whom are previous collaborators of Cobb’s—it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine that a classic record might come out of the ordeal.

“I was in New York City sitting in a hotel and I thought about the concept of Southern Family,” says Cobb. “Because everyone’s got a story about growing up, everyone’s got their childhood and their parents and grandparents and siblings. I wanted to document that. The reason it became Southern family is just because that’s what I know, and that’s what most of these artists know as well.”

Cobb’s said many times that he wanted Southern Family to include the kinds of songs that might not have made the albums—the ones that were too personal, too deep to be singles.

“It was really just an excuse to pour their hearts out and write about the songs that meant a lot to them growing up in the South, and with no filter,” he says. “It’s funny, most of the artists I work with are fearless anyway, with the songs on their albums. But I wanted the deep song—the song that raises hair on your arms when you hear it. That’s what I wanted on the whole record, and I think we got a lot of that.”

While some songs on Southern Family are well-worn classics—Morgane Stapleton sings “You Are My Sunshine,” a staple in her live shows with husband Chris—many of the songs are originals written specifically with the concept in mind.

“[The concept of Southern Family] is so many things all piled together, and it could go so many different ways, but everybody on there really brought something unique and special to the record,” says East, whose contribution “Learning” was written for his father. “For me, I just wanted to have something just to tell my old man thanks—that I appreciate all the times, good and bad, that I had growing up.”

Cobb didn’t just draw from previous collaborators for Southern Family; renowned Southern songwriters like Brandy Clark, Holly Williams and The Civil Wars’ John Paul White are also counted among the stacked roster.

“He was actually the first song we did for Southern Family, and he really hit all the checklist of what we wanted the songs to be like and how we wanted the record to feel,” says Cobb of White, who recorded album opener “Simple Song.” “He played a real important role in making this thing a reality—from just a concept in our heads into actuality. He was definitely the first stone in that.”

Hitmakers Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown are counted among the ranks of Southern Family, too—a fact that Cobb attributes not to his own glowing reputation, but to the familial vibe of Nashville’s music community.

“Miranda’s a really good example. I mean, when we made a list for the concept album, Miranda was on the first list—we’d have loved to have her on the record. But I didn’t know her, and nobody I knew knew her. She’s a mega-star. It just seemed too out of the realm of possibility for her to ever be on the album,” says Cobb. “I’ve always thought she stood for honesty, and she’s always made great records and I’m a fan of what she does. She’s always stayed true to herself.

“I ran into her socially here in Nashville one time, and she told me, ‘Hey—I heard about your record. What, I’m not cool enough to be on your record?’ She was actually offended I didn’t ask her! I was like, are you kidding me?”

Lambert wound up writing “Sweet By and By” with Brent Cobb (Dave’s “little cousin”).

“It’s just devastating,” says Dave. “I love the song. I’m super proud of it.”

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“I hated touring,” says Cobb with a laugh as he talks about getting into producing. “Always, my favorite part of being in a band was making records; I never liked traveling too much. Producing was really the natural extension, to continue feeling like you’re in a band and getting to stay home—always feeling like you’re in a different band. For me, the point of creation with songwriting and recording is always the most fun. I kind of get to live a lot of my fantasies by doing this every day.”

Growing up in Savannah, Georgia in a Pentecostal family, music was on the schedule every day—whether Cobb recognized its value in his ultimate career choice or not.

“You have that hymnal base that you hear every day growing up,” he says. “You never really get away from it. In our church we had pedal steel and acoustic guitar and bass and piano. Everything was very old-timey, very hymnal-based. That’s always been there, but I ran away from it.”

Cobb says he’s always been into recording in some form, running around with a four-track recorder and playing in bands as a high-schooler in Atlanta.

“I was only into rock ‘n’ roll; I never listened to country,” says the producer. “I never listened to anything outside of rock, really.”

He began moving in industry circles when his band, The Tender Idols, began gaining traction. They signed what Cobb deems “a really bad record deal,” but the seeds were planted as he began to see how other producers worked. Cobb’s time in Atlanta built a solid foundation in the studio, expanding his influences beyond rock and giving him a taste of high-level professional recording.

“When I was living in Atlanta, I got a chance to work with Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri. That influenced me because it really made me get heavily into Stax and Muscle Shoals and Motown and all this great soul music. I think that stayed with me,” says Cobb. But the man with a magic touch in modern day Americana had to move all the way across the country to Los Angeles before he would work on his first country record, Put The “O” Back In Country, with Shooter Jennings.

“He was an expert on country music and I wasn’t. I was a novice,” says Cobb. “We were both really young, and we didn’t really know what we were doing yet. You hear that kind of innocence on that record. We’d done the record before a label came in, so nobody was telling us how to do things. We didn’t really know how to do things, so you just hear this kind of childhood bliss of buddies having a lot of fun in the studio and cutting up and making each other laugh, making things that kind of perked us up. That record is youth.”

Cobb says they approached recording the album “more like a Stones record than a country one,” but it’s impossible to ignore the foothold he found in alt-country and Americana while he was in Los Angeles. The grittier country leanings of Jennings coupled with Cobb’s work on Jamey Johnson’s Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling That Lonesome Song arguably paved the way for recent breakout successes from alt-country and Americana artists, and it wasn’t long before Cobb himself heard the South calling him back.

“I heard Chris Stapleton when I was still in LA…I heard Jason Isbell and Drive-By Truckers when I was out in LA and it just made me really homesick,” he says. “I was in LA for 11 years, and you felt like you wanted to reconnect with where you grew up and your roots and have a family.”

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“I moved to Nashville because the music is in Nashville. I didn’t move to Nashville for the weather. I moved here because it felt like every time I was around and in Nashville, everything was alive,” Cobb says. “People were alive. The scene was alive. There are incredible musicians everywhere.”

For Cobb, a move to Nashville put some of the South’s most innovative songwriters quite literally in his backyard. His home studio has birthed budding classic records like Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, but the space isn’t employed in the same way for each recording. Cobb’s approach uses the room as much as the musician; anecdotes from his work with Isbell, Stapleton and many more point to a knack for finding where a musician will be able to most open up.

“The thing about Jason is that he’s so good,” says Cobb, discussing recording the gut-wrenching “Cover Me Up” from Southeastern. “When he sings it with an acoustic guitar, it’s just right. So we actually took him out of the recording studio—we were recording in the back of my house—and we ran lines up to my kitchen, which is upstairs, so he was completely alienated, by himself, looking out the window, recording that song without anybody influencing him…Overall, that’s him—as raw as it could possibly be. I wanted it to cut. I wanted it to feel like he was singing it to you. There really is no window between him and the audience on that song.”

As raw as many of Cobb’s recordings are, he’s quick to clarify that he doesn’t really care if the records match the sound of the band in a live setting—sure, he wants to capture that live energy, but he’s passionate about making records that leave you puzzled, completely in awe of the way that the band or the artist found that far-out sound.

“Somebody told me a long time ago about records, and they said that their job was to capture the band and to make it sound like you’re in the room with the band—that was their whole thing. My thing is not that,” he says. “I like records to sound like you don’t know how they’re made. Beatles albums did that and Hendrix records did that. I listen to some of those records and I can’t figure out how they’re made and I love that…I want you to feel completely immersed in it, but I also want it to sound like it’s from outer space.”

The idea of a barn-burning live performer with a record from outer space calls to mind one of Cobb’s other recent big wins: Simpson and his sophomore release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. With a nod to classic country voices (the most common comparison being to White Mansions vocalist Waylon Jennings, in fact), the record was hailed by critics and old-country purists for its psychedelic take on country’s most classic sounds.

“The Sturgill record was so fast” remembers Cobb, speaking specifically about fan favorite “Turtles All The Way Down.” “I think we did the record in four days or something. I dunno, it just came together. The room is so small, and we’re all playing together—I’m playing nylon [string guitar] on that song, and Sturgill’s playing acoustic on that song, and his guitar player’s next to us and the bass and drums and we’re in one room. It just seemed like it flowed out of everybody.”

It’s not uncommon for Cobb to strap on an instrument for the recording process, whether or not he’s planning on performing on the record. It’s a natural extension of his hands-on approach to producing, feeling the tempo and the instrumentals and the tone of the song the same way that the band does.

“I think it’s a really weird thing sometimes when the producer’s in the control room and the band’s in the other room and the band’s playing, and they look at you when they get done with a take to rate them, like it’s a professional diving competition,” he says. “It’s a really weird separation that I’m not a fan of. Probably 85 percent of the time, I’m in the room with the bands—I may be playing shaker, I may be playing guitar or bass or something, but it’s always being one and treating it like [I’m in the] band in a lot of ways.”

This deep involvement in every track gives Cobb a surreal feeling about many of the records he’s involved in, and he references several of his well-known records the same way he does Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds.

“It wasn’t labored over. It felt surreal when it was going down—it felt like one of those records that you just listened to and you just adored,” he says. “It felt like an old record in the best possible way.“

Simpson’s record may not be the one that has sold the most copies, but it certainly garnered the attention of some of Nashville’s most acclaimed songwriters. It was that way for Chris Stapleton, whose windfall of success with Cobb-produced debut Traveller after a sweep at the Country Music Awards sealed the deal on what seems like the Golden Age of Dave Cobb.

“I’ve got to be honest. I heard about a half a song of last Sturgill Simpson record—I don’t even remember what song—but I loved the sound of it so much, and not necessarily the notes that were being played, but the sonic quality of it, to the degree that I’m like, ‘Man, who did this record? I have to hunt this guy down,’” Stapleton told Paste last year. “We met and talked and he had unlimited knowledge of me and some of the things that I’ve done. [We] found out we had a lot of musical tastes and addictions to guitars and gear in common—it was like a guy I’d known forever.”

“One of the days of the recording of that album—we did most of it at the RCA Studio A, except for one day it was booked—we went to the Castle studio in Franklin. It just didn’t feel right being in the studio, so I set him up outside, and we sat outside and recorded that day.”

If you listen closely, you can hear the crickets on the two songs they recorded that day: “Might As Well Get Stoned” and “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.” The latter is an emotional climax on the record, which was inspired largely by the loss of Stapleton’s father.

“Him recording that song, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,’ is one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever had in the studio—I mean, that’s about his father and his father’s battle with cancer, and he poured his heart out on it,” Cobb says. “I can’t believe he was able to get through it, because it’s such a touching song. It’s such a monumental lyric. We only ran it one and a half times, and that’s what you hear—just that pure, raw emotion. Being out there, in the middle of the woods and looking outside and him singing so beautifully, it really kind of captured the meaning of that song.”

Cobb has recording anecdotes for days, ranging from the critically acclaimed to No. 1 country radio fare like A Thousand Horses’ “Smoke.” Working in legendary studios or at home or outside, posting up at open mics and working with the Americana Music Association to give artists a platform, his dogged pursuit of music is unconditional and steadfast.

“I feel like the city, this is our time,” he says. “Nashville is what London was in the ‘60s musically, what LA was in the ‘70s—I think Nashville is that now. And that’s why I came. Music drew me here and the people drew me here.”

He may have moved to Nashville to go where the music is, but he moves within Nashville with the same intention. Southern Family may not be released until mid-March, but the Southern family Cobb has fostered in Nashville is already in motion, and modern music is all the better for it.

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