Brent Cobb might be only 31, and still a relative newcomer to Nashville with his latest laconic set of homespun observations, Providence Canyon, his third album overall. But he truly believes that his unusually serendipitous life would make a great in-depth documentary someday. Or at least a zany TV movie. “I think it’s just a grand story that nobody’s told yet, and I know that it’s my story, but I feel like I’m being self-centered when I think about it too much,” he sighs. “But who knows? Maybe the time just isn’t right to tell it.”
Or perhaps it is, because its ironic centerpiece would be the Tale of Two Cobbs: singer-songwriter Brent and red-hot, retro-minded country-music producer Dave, cousins who grew up in different Georgia hamlets (Ellaville and Savannah, respectively) never knowing of the other’s existence until they met by chance at a relative’s funeral. “So we didn’t know one another, but Dave was already working with this artist that I loved, Shooter Jennings,” says the Grammy-nominated Brent of the man who would go on to be his producer, too. “And from the first moment that Dave and I worked together? Well, it was just crazy not to have grown up together, too.”
In retrospect, Cobb wonders just how much influence working as a photo developer at Walgreens had on his composing. Developing people’s private pictures was surreal, and he’d occasionally get such racy shots that it seemed like the customer had forgotten—or not—that other people would have to look at them.
But that’s the way that things often go in the deep South, chortles Dave Cobb, who knows sound so well that he was recently flown to Detroit by Dodge, where he helped the audio-design specialists at Harman Kardon tweak the cab speakers of the 2019 Ram model. (And that’s where many Music Row engineers first test their finished mixes—from inside their pickup trucks, he swears). “Brent and I were brought up on opposite sides of the state, which means that you’ll never see each other, because that’s three and a half hours away and that’s just too far to drive,” says Dave, whose production resume includes recent albums by Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton and Ashley Monroe. “So we finally met at my grandmother’s funeral, and she was a bluegrass musician, and every one of my cousins played, too. So when Brent gave my wife his demo, I was like, ‘Ah, I’ll listen to it later.’ But she put it on in the car on the way back to the airport, and I was just blown away. His songwriting, even back then, just flipped me out.”
Providence Canyon, out Friday (May 11), marks the picture-perfect zenith of that working relationship, which is based out of RCA’s historic Studio A, where Dave was anointed a producer in residence with a long-term lease. It’s almost symbiotic, the way they complement each other as the songs shift mood, genre, and tempo while never straying too far from the hickory-wind path, starting with the pedal-steel propelled title track (about a real gully in Lumpkin, Georgia, a place Brent hung out at as a kid that had acquired the grandiose nickname The Little Grand Canyon). Then Brent drifts into bluesy rambles (“Morning’s Gonna Come,” “Sucker for a Good Time”), Little Feat funk (“30-06,” “If I Don’t See Ya”), vintage-Eagles twang (“High in the Country”), and down ‘n’ dirty honky tonk (“When the Dust Settles”). Lyrically, much of the album seems to indict the very vagabond-troubadour lifestyle that has also sustained Cobb; he spends his time away just wanting to get back home again. “I don’t know what my problem is,” he says, sheepishly. “I used to always think I should just move the hell back home. So I did. And when I’m not on the road, I’m back in Georgia now, where I haven’t been in 12 years.”
For a while, Brent Cobb believed that living in Los Angeles was crucial to his artistic future. He changed his mind. By 2006, he had cut his debut, No Place Left to Leave, with Dave producing, and his 2016 sophomore LP, Shine On Rainy Day, had hit Billboard’s country Top 20 and earned him a 2018 Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. In 2008, country star Luke Bryan insisted that the neophyte try his luck in Nashville, and he still remembers pulling into Bryan’s Brentwood driveway the day he arrived. “Luke had a little bass boat attached to the back of his truck, and we were going to go fishing,” he chuckles. “I’d only met the guy once, so I didn’t really know him. But on our way to get some gas, he said, ‘You know what? Let’s just go to the house and hang out.’ So we got two lawn chairs and sat in his driveway while he explained the world of publishing to me. And later we wrote in the Liberace Room at Warner Chappell Publishing, and it was the first official co-write I’d ever had.”
Cobb had other benefactors along the way. Like Ms. Trotter, the Walgreens manager who hired him on the spot, the day after he arrived as a photo developer. During his yearlong tenure there—working in what now is essentially a lost art—he occasionally found himself caught between a rock and a shift-schedule hard place when he needed to play showcases. “But I was really up-front with Ms. Trotter when I got hired,” he says. “She asked me, ‘What are you doing here if you’re from Georgia?’ And I said, ‘I’m a songwriter,’ and I’m sure Walgreens gets that pretty often. But she always treated me with a lot of respect, and any time my songwriting started to get busy, she would say, ‘You are not coming to work tonight—you go play the Bluebird, like you’re supposed to.’” Whenever he’s passing by that Franklin, Tenn., pharmacy, he makes a point of stopping in to say hello to his old boss and crew. Ms. Trotter keeps clippings of Cobb’s progress push-pinned to the employee bulletin board.
In retrospect, Cobb wonders just how much influence that Walgreens gig had on his composing. Developing people’s private pictures was surreal, he recalls, and he’d occasionally get such racy, erotic shots that it seemed like the customer had forgotten—or not—that other people would have to look at them in the process. But he was witnessing entire tableaus, family storylines playing out on a daily basis, with a celebrity popping up in the mix every once in a while (he developed Ashley Judd’s pix once, and met Sheryl Crow one evening in a store aisle. “And she is awesome, but I did not fan out,” he says.) But the singer has developed a keen observational eye over the years, and a lazy, loping drawl that’s reminiscent of that style’s Grand Master, the late Roger Miller. Both Cobbs can easily pick up on that influence.
“I love Roger Miller—he’s my favorite artist of all time,” Brent enthuses. “He could play anything, but his songwriting was just crazy, just for ‘One Dyin’ and a Buryin’ alone. He’s the only writer and performer that I’ve ever heard that nails it every single time, the way that people I grew up around in my life actually talk. So I just relate more to him than any other songwriter. I don’t try to be Roger Miller, but I try to deliver my songs a honestly as he did.”
Says Dave of his cousin, “He’s really into that storytelling aspect that Roger was doing, and that’s the thing I like about Brent—he has this laid-back feel to him, this sit-on-the-front-porch-and-just-listen-to-your-surroundings kind of thing. It really reminds of the climate in Georgia, where it’s relaxed, nobody’s in much of a hurry, and everybody waves when they drive by. It’s just a different world.”
Inadvertently, the producer might have stumbled upon his protege’s raison detre, one that’s guided him through countless collaborations with other artists before flying solo. “For me, the only success I ever had as a songwriter was with songs that were very personal in nature,” Brent concludes. “If I tried to write a song that was someone else’s idea, and in the mindset of, ‘Man! This is hit city!’ with that thought process, I’ve never had any sort of success. So I’m sure that’s swept me in the direction of trying to keep my material personal, without ever thinking about making any money.”