Dave Cobb Describes the Long Slow Path to ‘Southern Family’
After the CMAs, the Grammys, the Saturday Night Live appearance and the weeks Chris Stapleton’s Traveller album spent atop Billboard's Country Albums chart, Dave Cobb is fielding endless questions about what recording those 14 songs was like. The inquisition waits breathlessly for some story of stars aligning, and to some extent they get it. But art never comes finished without hours and hours of idle time.
The producer is suddenly Nashville’s hot producer, which, he admits, brings pressure he’s not built to embrace. Cobb won’t be cashing in, and his new project — the very un-commercial, but very artistically satisfying Southern Family concept album — proves it.
I was hoping to get these great songs, and I think I got more than that. I got people’s heart on record, I got their soul on record. I got the soil of the South on the record,” Cobb says. “I feel like you can really feel the landscape. You can really feel the South in this record. You can really feel family on this record.
In fact money is the least of Cobb's concerns, and it’s always been like that. One hoping that this indifference is one ingredient to his secret sauce may be disappointed. A first-person account of what those studio sessions were actually like reveals a blueprint that’s anything but time-tested. To an outsider it may have looked like procrastination. Yes, those were magical days. But they took time, and lunch.
“When we were doing Traveller, we’d show up at the studio at noon," Cobb says with a friendly but businesslike patter. "We’d order some food, goof off for a little bit, talk and drink a little bit. Hang out some more and order food. Order dinner and talk and goof off."
“We were wasting whole days. Just wasting eight or nine hours, just hanging out. But then at nine o’clock or so Chris would say he’s ready and it was just the right time to do it. And we’d walk up there and get three finished masters and that would be the songs.”
Cobb’s brilliance is in letting artists be artists. The word “producer” doesn’t have a set-in-stone definition for the Savannah, Ga. native. He’s a role player, a player’s coach in sports parlance. Nowhere is that approach more noticeable than on the 12 songs that make up Southern Family, a project inspired by a rare 1978 LP called White Mansions. Sure, it’s his baby, but his gift is in allowing the artist community to raise it.
“If there’s a part that needs to be written in a song, I’ll help write it. If it’s moral support I’ll be there. It varies every time. Sometimes it is showing up and smiling, and sometimes it is getting really deep into it.”
Of course it helps if Stapleton, Anderson East, John Paul White and Miranda Lambert are a few of the artists willing to help. Southern Family took over a year to record, mostly because artists who agreed couldn’t find time to join Cobb in the studio. The Stapletons' (Chris and wife Morgane) breathtaking version of “You Are My Sunshine” was the final song to be recorded, done after their “world blew up” in November. It's undoubtedly the centerpiece of the album, and a song that asks when Morgane Stapleton's solo debut will be arriving ("I'll let her decide that," Cobb says, smiling).
White of the Civil Wars fame was first, and most essential. His song set a foundation stone for the album, although no artist that followed was able to hear his or any of the other tracks.
“He defined everything in one song,” Cobb tells Taste of Country. “The whole sentiment and the feeling and the power that we were hoping for.” He’d asked for honest stories about growing up in the South.
“I was hoping to get these great songs, and I think I got more than that. I got people’s heart on record, I got their soul on record. I got the soil of the South on the record. I think people went deeper than I thought was even possible, and I love that. I feel like you can really feel the landscape. You can really feel the South in this record. You can really feel family on this record.”
White’s “Simple Song” opens the album with a dark lyric about death, but when explained one sees the sentiment he was aiming for. The singer wrote the song from his grandmother’s point of view. It’s about his grandfather, who was his hero growing up.
“His grandfather was his life,” Cobb says. “His grandfather told him how to load a pipe, his grandfather taught him how to fish.” When he died, White couldn’t understand why everyone was crying at the funeral, except his grandmother.
“He didn’t understand that for many years, and later on he finally found out his grandfather used to stay out all night and was a different person than he thought. His grandmother said that when his grandfather finally died, that she cried for him when she was alive and she didn’t have to cry anymore.”
While Southern Family is undoubtedly a thinking man’s album that relies on raw emotion and pure storytelling, the rest of the songs are — mostly, with some exceptions — uplifting, or at least heart-warming. Jason Isbell's blue collar, husky "God Is a Working Man" is warm and real. Zac Brown and Jamey Johnson turned in songs about the importance of food and the kitchen in a Southern family. East's "Learning" is a funky, soulful recollection that stands out like a dog in a hat on a mostly humble, raw, acoustic album.
Cobb used some of the recording techniques learned from Stapleton to record Southern Family, mainly keeping it chill for his artists. Lambert appreciated it. The two weren’t friends prior to cutting “Sweet By and By” together, but they sure were afterward. A little bourbon led to a little music, which led to a deep dive into Cobb’s record collection.
“She’s so real in every possible way. She came in there and it’s just like one of your buddies. It wasn’t like Miranda Lambert coming in studio. It was one of your buddies coming in.”
Cobb’s own childhood was country (fishing, outdoors activities, shooting at alligators) but not. While his parents listened to Elvis, Buddy Holly and Kenny Rogers, he preferred Ozzy Osbourne and Led Zeppelin. The Cobbs are a very musical family (cousin Brent has a song on Southern Family, and helped write Lambert’s selection), but Dave’s father didn’t want him chasing his musical dreams. He admits he had to hide his records, and his dreams. That led to a yearning for fresh air, so as soon as he had the means, he left for California.
“I rediscovered Southern America and Southern culture and country when I moved to Southern California,” Cobb says. The first tangible result of this revived spirit was Shooter Jennings' critically acclaimed Put the "O" Back In Country album (2005). Cobb chuckles a little when asked about the magic of creating this album. They had no idea what they were doing, he says. The rocker wrote and recorded "Can You Come Over" for Southern Family. His inclusion seems 100 percent necessary. It was, after all, his father Waylon who cut most of the songs on White Mansions.
When pressed, Cobb admits that despite a decade of success, he still feels very un-Nashville. This isn’t an assessment of Music City. He just doesn’t feel like he fits in. The Grammys weren’t overdue validation, they were more of a bizarre thing that happened. One month later, they still seem unreal.
This could be a sort of self-preservation. He’s an in-demand producer now more than ever, but he’s still laser-focused on making art for art's sake, with the right people.
“I always feel like I tried to do things for the right reason, and somehow money came along with it. But it never was an agenda.”
Brent Cobb’s solo album is another Cobb production that’s coming in 2016, and one figures that when Stapleton returns to the studio his 41-year-old friend will be there with him. Jason Isbell, Holly Williams, East and Lake Street Drive are amongst the artists he’s worked with in the last 12 months. Prior to Stapleton’s success, his most commercial project may have been A Thousand Horses' Southernality album. In fact, their song "Smoke" is his only No. 1 single.
The point is he’s not going to waffle when presented with an opportunity to work with what he sees as someone with less talent, but more money. Gary Clark Jr. is an artist on his bucket list. And his smile when asked about Morgane Stapleton’s solo career indicates that maybe he wouldn’t mind helping her out, too.
"When I started making records I never did it for money. I did it because I wanted to work with really talented people that meant something. And I want to continue that."
There are about 12 of them to be found on Southern Family.
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