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Everybody’s Got a Story to Tell: Dave Cobb and his Southern Family

By Sean Titone

March 17, 2016

Outside of certain circles, Dave Cobb may not be a household name. But what if I told you this Georgia native/now-Nashville resident has produced some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the last five years by artists like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Houndmouth, Lake Street Dive and more? I’m guessing your ears just perked up a little. Or maybe a lot. Cobb also just won two Grammys for Best Country Album (Stapleton) and Best Americana Album (Isbell) and was nominated for Producer of the Year. You saw him play with Stapleton during his career-boosting performance with Justin Timberlake at last year’s CMAs, as well as Stapleton’s recent Saturday Night Live appearance. Now, Cobb’s name is squarely in the spotlight on a compilation of all new songs from some of his musical friends and family and he’s calling it, fittingly, Dave Cobb’s Southern Family.

It’s a concept album that was inspired by a record Cobb has gushed about to anyone who will listen for as long as he can remember.

“There’s a record I love called White Mansions written by an English guy, Paul Kennerley, and produced by Glyn Johns in 1978,” Cobb said. “It was a concept record about the American South during the Civil War. Paul had actually never been to America but he cast really great characters. He’s got Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter singing, and he has Eric Clapton leading the band, and it was the first record that made me fall in love with country music even though it was by way of an English writer. I try to make everybody listen to that record, and for years I talked about it until I wore people out.”

Cobb didn’t always have designs on putting out a record with his name splashed across the cover, much less a concept album.

“My friend told me you should make a concept record and I kind of laughed him off the phone and didn’t think twice about it and then maybe about a week later, I was in New York City and it just hit me, the concept was Southern Family,” Cobb continues. “Everybody’s got a story to tell, about growing up in the South, about their parents or grandparents, sons and daughters. Whatever it is, it’s something that means a lot to them, and I thought that was a really natural topic for people to write about. The first people I reached out to were Jason Isbell and Chris and Morgane Stapleton, and they were like, ‘yeah, we’re in,’ and I thought, well maybe this is not that crazy and then it kind of spread from there.”

Producer Dave Cobb in the studio at his Nashville home. Cobb's work has added traditional notes to the slick sound that dominates country, but he challenges the idea that what he's doing is more "authentic."
Dave Cobb

In the South, religion, family and football are intertwined with a strong emphasis on tradition and roots. You experience life in the little moments that breathe between the bigger ones. For me, this was eating wild honeysuckle in the woods behind my house, capturing fireflies between my hands during Sunday night magic hour, drinking sweet tea at my favorite local restaurant, riding my bike just to go…somewhere. Sure, this might all sound a bit romanticized but that’s what happens when you move, like I did in 2002, from Birmingham, Alabama, to New York City, only to move back south to Charlotte last year. Of course, sometimes it takes distance and time apart to make you realize how much you miss something. Cobb is well aware of this. Born in Savannah, Georgia, he moved to New York and then Los Angeles for several years before settling down with his wife and daughter in Nashville in 2011.

“When I was a kid, my grandmother was a Pentecostal minister, and so I kind of grew up in the church and I think probably most Southern people wind up growing up in the church and hearing these hymnals and hearing the conversations, the dialect and the temperament. I think all that influences music, and I think, obviously, the great thing is, rock and roll came from the South, blues came from the South, soul came from the South, and it’s a little bit of all that sprinkled into Southern Family and sprinkled into these artists. You know Chris Stapleton has a lot of all those things in one, so does Anderson East, so does Jason Isbell, a lot of the artists have that, and you can run away from it, which I did. I ran to California and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. All of the heritage and the musical heritage and just the feeling of the South made me want to return. So I think these artists on the record were picked because of that natural influence. That’s who they are; you feel that influence,” Cobb says.

As the landscape of popular country and Americana music continues to evolve, Cobb’s Southern Family reflects that diversity with a gathering of those genres’ old guard and a newer wave of artists that share the tracklist. In addition to Isbell and Morgane and Chris Stapleton, the album also includes Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown, Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson, Cobb’s cousin Brent Cobb (Dave has described him as the “Redneck Paul Simon”), soulful newcomer Anderson East and more. The leadoff track comes courtesy of John Paul White, formerly of Grammy-award winning powerhouse duo The Civil Wars. White found inspiration from within his family that, like many of the songs on the album, was both personal and powerful.

“Simple Song is about White’s grandfather who was kind of his life, he showed him how to load a pipe, showed him how to fish, he showed him how to do everything. He was a hero in his eyes, and I think his grandfather passed when he was about 12. When he passed, he noticed all his cousins and family were crying, everyone except for his grandmother. He didn’t understand it, and later on life he found out his grandfather wasn’t quite the person that he thought he was and would stay out all night and his grandmother would stay up worrying about him. So his grandmother told him later, ‘honey, I cried for him while he was alive, I don’t need to cry for him anymore.’ And that’s what the song’s about. He actually wrote the song as his grandmother from her perspective and it’s so deep and cutting, I can’t believe he just put it out there. He really exposed this story, and I think everybody had that kind of heart when they wrote on the record, so the songs are better than I could have ever imagined,” Cobb says graciously.

Morgane and Chris Stapleton chose to cover You Are My Sunshine, arguably one of the most recognizable songs of all time, outside of Happy Birthday. It’s a song so ubiquitous that every mother or father has probably sung it to his or her child at least a dozen times, but what Morgane and Chris did with it is remarkable in that sounds like a brand new song that transforms the original into a bluesy, burning torch song.

“Morgane is crazy talented and the first time they told me they wanted to do You Are My Sunshine for their song I was like, come on guys, you’re wimping out. You Are My Sunshine? Everybody knows that song! It’s the most obvious one, it’s like covering Amazing Grace. Anyway, I sometimes play with Chris and Morgane live, so I went out with them one night and right before we walked on stage, they were like, we’re doing Sunshine tonight, it’s in G, just follow us. And we go out there and they start playing it, and my mouth just dropped. It was just an incredible, complete reinvention of the song, and I had to apologize after that show. So on the recording, that was absolutely Morgane and Chris leading the way and I showed up and smiled and ordered food and just couldn’t believe what was happening. They really had that concept. They made it that way,” Cobb modestly states.

And how about that crazy, ripping guitar solo from Chris midway through the song?

“They had been playing it for a little while live, so they had a really good handle on it before we went in the studio, and Chris is an incredible guitar player. As a matter of fact, he can do a pretty mean Freddie King impersonation on guitar and every time he’s just goofing around or we’re warming up, he busts out that Freddie King solo thing and it blows me away every time. So that’s really him just letting loose, not thinking too much, just going for it. So it stayed in.”

Besides Cobb’s easygoing, calm demeanor, another trait that seems to make him popular with musicians and bands is his joy in capturing spontaneous moments. Part of that is his skill in being empathetic and having the ability to read a room or a situation.

“We’re shooting this film that goes along with Southern Family, and as we were shooting, we rented out this old mansion here in Nashville called Glen Leven. And it’s just a beautiful setting. We had people come by to perform their songs from the album, and as we were filming, just that day, something happened when Holly Williams and her husband Chris Coleman came. It just felt like the right day and the right vibe, and everybody was so excited to be in this place that we actually cut their song Settle Down live while shooting the film. And this place was built in the 1850s. You can hear the creaky floorboards and the echoes of the mansion. It was just one of those days where that wasn’t the agenda, but it felt right. Sometimes you have to recognize when the magic is happening and make sure not to miss it and that was one of those days. Everything was right,” Cobb says.  

He continues, “The film probably won’t be out until the end of the year; it’s being made right now. Some of it is live performance and studio performance, but a lot of it is really just digging into each individual story of the artist, going to see where they grew up, meeting family members, looking at old pictures. It’s less about the music performance and more about the story of each of the artists and their families’ stories.”

It’s an exciting and busy time right now for Cobb. In addition to the release of Southern Family, he’s set to take over the reins of Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A on April 1st as the main producer in residence. Needless to say, his knowledge and love of music history, as well as his growing network of musician friends makes him the perfect fit, as Studio A has been home for over half a century to legends like Dolly Parton, The Beach Boys, Willie Nelson and many more.

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Michael Ochs Archives

“The place, to me, is like a great musician’s guitar. Sometimes you pick up a guitar and it has a song on it. And I think that’s a space that has a song in it. You go there and you feel completely in awe of what came before you, and I hope we can continue to make records that are heartfelt and lasting like those guys did before us. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility. You know, we did Stapleton’s Traveller there, and I think the fact that we were so inspired by the space made us have fun with the record and got us going. I hope that record is a record that continues the legacy of that space,” Cobb says.

The lineage of Southern music is multi-faceted, and Southern Family is successful in representing that with a wide variety of genres while keeping a common thread of intimate and personal storytelling. Traditions may come and go, but the music will live forever. Dave Cobb is currently the gatekeeper and tastemaker of that music, and it’s safe to say it’s in pretty great hands.

Southern Family—a new compilation produced and conceived by Producer of the Year Grammy-nominee Dave Cobb—will be released March 18 on Low Country Sound/Elektra Records and is now available.

First Listen: Dave Cobb’s ‘Southern Family’ Compilation via NPR

SOUTHERN FAMILY TRACK LIST
1. John Paul White “Simple Song”
2. Jason Isbell “God Is A Working Man”
3. Brent Cobb “Down Home”
4. Miranda Lambert “Sweet By and By”
5. Morgane Stapleton with Chris Stapleton “You Are My Sunshine”
6. Zac Brown “Grandma’s Garden”
7. Jamey Johnson “Momma’s Table”
8. Anderson East “Learning”
9. Holly Williams “Settle Down”
10. Brandy Clark “I Cried”
11. Shooter Jennings “Can You Come Over”?
12. Rich Robinson (featuring The Settles Connection) “The Way Home”

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