By Sean Titone
November 7, 2016
After growing up in the tiny city of Ellaville, Georgia (population: 1,857 as of 2013), it’s safe to say that the now Nashville-based singer-songwriter Brent Cobb knows a thing or two about small town Southern life.
“I was writing with this guy one time,” Cobb told me during our recent phone interview, “and we were writing a song about a small town, same old song you always hear, one red light, everybody’s joyful most of the time… you know, that whole town square deal. And, in the middle of us writing this song, he stops me and he asks ‘do you think this town really exists that everybody writes about?’ And I was like, ‘yeah, I’m from there.’ That’s what Ellaville was like.”
In the song “South of Atlanta” off his excellent major label debut album, Shine on Rainy Day (Low Country Sound/Elektra Records), he sings longingly of his hometown, and it’s all in the details. The smell of honeysuckle in the air. Old Joe at the local Chevron gas station, filling up your tank and cleaning your windshield. It’s the time-honored Southern tradition of bragging that your city’s barbecue is the best and doesn’t compare to anywhere else. The instrumentation and arrangement of the song are deceptively simple and the warm, vintage-sounding guitar and bass lines, mixed with Cobb’s emotionally invested, conversational vocal delivery, are an endearing combination. Georgia has a long history in the canon of popular music, what with it being on Ray Charles’ mind and the devil going down there in search of a soul to steal. Cobb’s “South of Atlanta” is a worthy addition to the library of songs about one of the quintessential Southern states.
Shine on Rainy Day is an album ten years in the making. Produced by his cousin Dave Cobb (the in demand super-producer behind recent chart-toppers by Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson), it’s the album Cobb says he’s been working toward his entire career. He didn’t know his cousin growing up, and they met for the first time nearly ten years ago at a family funeral where Brent was a pallbearer. Dave was not a household name yet as a producer, and at the time he was working in Los Angeles with Shooter Jennings. After hearing a demo of Brent’s, Dave invited him out to LA to record his first album, with Shooter and Dave producing. After a few months living in LA and realizing the lifestyle just wasn’t for him, Brent moved back south and ultimately settled in Nashville after an invite from Luke Bryan who had heard the album he recorded with Dave, No Place Left to Leave. This led to a fairly lucrative songwriting career for Cobb who wrote hit songs for Bryan (Tailgate Blues), Miranda Lambert (Old Shit), Kellie Pickler (Rockaway) and Little Big Town (Pavement Ends), along with many others.
Music has always played a huge role in Cobb’s life, ever since he was a kid. “I come from a really musical family, not just (my cousin) Dave. My dad and his brother played in a band called Slaughter Creek Band. I grew up going to their shows. My daddy played every weekend. He’d do three or four days a week and was a real weekend warrior. My little sister and I would go to as many shows as we could. He did a lot of show openings for people like Doug Stone, George Jones, and Butch Trucks. And my Momma’s side of the family from Cleveland, Ohio is also highly musical. They were more into Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and the Beatles. I just always grew up around music.”
He continued, “There’s one track on the album called ‘Country Bound.’ It’s the only song I didn’t have a hand in writing. When I was five years old, we were in Cleveland for Christmas. And I remember seeing snow for the first time in my life. As you know, we don’t get a lot of snow down in Georgia. I turn around from the window, and I remember seeing my Dad and my uncle, my mother’s brother, write the song ‘Country Bound.’ And it was always my favorite song. It was the first song I ever witnessed being written. So I wanted to include it on the album.”
As it turns out, though, “Country Bound” wasn’t actually the first song in which Cobb knew all of the lyrics. “The first song I knew the lyrics to was ‘There’s a Tear in My Beer’ by Hank Williams. I sang that song at my Sunday school. We all had to sing a song, and all the parents were in there. Again, I was about five years old, and I vaguely remember this, which is strange, but I stood up on the table in the middle of Sunday school and sang (Cobb sings the chorus over the phone) ‘There’s a Teeeear in my Beeeeer’…anyway, that really made Momma proud,” he laughs.
The 10 songs on Shine on Rainy Day are extremely personal for Cobb. “I wanted to do something that was personal and, this sounds bad, but if something were to happen and I couldn’t make any more records after this record, I wanted my little two-year-old daughter to someday…if all she had was that record, she’d know who I was. You know…if something crazy happened. That’s all I knew I wanted to do with this record.”
Brent’s songwriting style, combined with Dave’s penchant for producing classic-sounding albums that sound like lost relics from an earlier time, gives Shine on Rainy Day an old-school grit and charm that’s perfectly suited for vinyl and Sunday mornings. There are many standouts. The breezy leadoff track “Solving Problems” is on the surface very Nashville-ian in its subject matter (it’s essentially about two guys sitting on a porch on Music Row playing music and shooting the breeze), but it’s one of those songs that has an intangible, special quality that could prove to have similar lasting power to another song about making music with friends, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” Closing track “Black Crow” has a much more down-and-dirty bluesy vibe, and it’s taken to another level with a killer slide guitar solo, courtesy of another Southern artist making waves in the music industry, Jason Isbell. Cobb told me, “I’ve always loved Isbell’s playing. He’s just got that Southern touch, you know? Even with the Drive-By Truckers, the way he plays slide is crazy. Dave and I both knew on ‘Black Crow’ we wanted something like that. So, we were just like why don’t we try Isbell and see if we can make that happen? Dave called him and said we didn’t want him for his name or anything, he could go by an alias if he wanted, but just the way he plays would be great on this song, and Jason came in and did it and just knocked it out of the park. And when he got done, we asked him what his alias would be, and he said, ‘I want my name on that,’ so it was really cool that it happened.”
“Diggin’ Holes” is easily one of the most catchy and upbeat, yet wholeheartedly self-deprecating songs of the last decade with lyrics that are instantly memorable after just one listen:
Well, I oughta be workin’ in a coal mine
Neck-deep in black lung soot
Swingin’ a pick at that mountainside
Halfway to China, I think I would
Fit right in where the sun don’t shine
She’s better off alone
Yeah, I oughta be workin’ in a coal mine
Lord knows I’m good at diggin’ holes
Recording with his cousin Dave was just as special and memorable as it was nearly a decade ago when they first collaborated. “It was like coming home. Dave produces like I write. It’s strange because we didn’t know one another growing up, but it’s real natural. It’s real spur of the moment. We’d get in the room, we wouldn’t pre-produce, we wouldn’t think about it. We’d just go in, let’s do these songs today. And we’d all be in the same room live and we’d just play them a few times. Keep the best one. All the vocals are live. And then when they’d be mixing stuff down a little bit, I’d go out of the control room and go work on another song. Whatever was the inspiration in the moment.”
He continued, “A lot of times in Nashville or wherever, when a producer or songwriter or co-writer says, ‘this just doesn’t feel right,’ they mean technically. And one of the differences with Dave and myself is that when he’s producing something and says something doesn’t feel right, he doesn’t mean technically, he means in his heart. And I’m the same way when I’m writing a song. If I say, ‘that doesn’t feel right yet,’ I don’t mean technically. I mean it just doesn’t feel right in my heart.”
While Cobb has been making a living as a musician for over ten years there’s a sense that, in some ways, his career is just now beginning to blossom into something special with the release of Shine on Rainy Day. The arc of his career follows a similar pattern to an artist he recently shared the stage with at a sold out show at Ascend Amphitheatre in Nashville – Chris Stapleton. Before Stapleton took over the music world like some kind of whiskey-soaked wrecking ball with his album Traveller, he, too, was a struggling songwriter, writing songs for others, not sure what the future would hold. This similarity and musical kinship isn’t lost on Cobb. “Just to see (Chris) break that barrier down and pave the road, it just makes me feel like it is achievable you know? It can happen. Stapleton’s stage setup is so low-key and you know, half the time, he’s not even looking at anybody in the crowd. He’s so focused on his music. And I’ve always sort of been that way too. So just to be able to see someone who’s struggled for so long and finally break through and is a star, man, it just makes me be like, alright, OK, I knew it could happen. It makes me feel hopeful.”
Listen to “Country Bound” and “Diggin’ Holes” from the album Shine On Rainy Day and catch Brent Cobb at Neighborhood Theatre on Friday, April 13, 2018