Like many producers, Georgia-native Dave Cobb started out as a musician, offering his skills as a session guitar player in Atlanta before throwing in with the Brit-influenced band, The Tender Idols. About the time the band’s shelf life hit its expiration date, Cobb realized the studio was the most fun when it came to making music, and concentrated his energies there. It was a move that also led him west.
After years making albums that were more counterculture than contemporary country, Cobb has essentially grabbed Nashville by throat and shaken the stuffing out of it
“They said, ‘Californy is the place you ought be. So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars…” Well, maybe not exactly movie stars, but he did meet Shooter Jennings — with whom he still works and considers one of his closest friends. Cobb produced the singer’s notoriously-titled 2005 debut, Put the O Back in Country, and just about every Shooter Jennings album since.
For a while, Cobb continued to work regularly in L.A., mostly with rock and pop bands such as The Shys, Chris Cornell and The Ringers. It was a heart-to-heart with hardline traditionalist Jamey Johnson, whom he met through Shooter, that convinced Cobb to embrace his Georgia roots; not long after, he moved his family to Nashville.
“I left the South to run away from it, then I came back here to make country records,” Cobb said. “It makes no sense. I can’t explain it.”
After years making albums that were more counterculture than contemporary country, Nashville is where Cobb’s career took hold. And by “take hold,” it would actually be more accurate to describe it as grabbing it by the throat and shaking the stuffing out of it. At the 2015 Grammy Awards, Cobb had four nominations. And although he didn’t win for Producer of the Year, he did join Chris Stapleton onstage to share in the singer’s win for Best Country Album.
His time in Nashville has seen Cobb produce some of the most exciting albums in recent years: Sturgill Simpson‘s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014), A Thousand Horses‘ Southernality (2015), Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern (2013), Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song (2008) all were produced by Cobb. And lest you think he abandoned his inner rocker, just last year he produced Finger Eleven‘s Five Crooked Lines and Europe‘s War of Kings.
“We had a good house and a good life in California, and we gave it all up to follow the music,” Cobb said. “If I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t have met Sturgill or continued to work with Jamey. I wouldn’t have landed the opportunity I had with Chris Stapleton or Jason Isbell. I followed the music. I followed the feeling.”
Whether you call it country, Americana, alt country or something else, the common denominator is a sound that is respectful, yet gleefully colors outside of the lines; modern, yet grounded in the down-to-earth nuts and bolts of yesterday’s country.
Anderson East is the newest addition to that list. Cobb not only produced last year’s ebullient Delilah, he also signed East to his Low Country Sounds label. With a rollickin’ horn section and Hammond organ dotted throughout, the Alabama native’s sound has more in common with Muscle Shoals soul than contemporary country. Under Cobb’s tutelage, East has become one of the most talked about new artists in 2016.
Which brings us to the producer’s current labor of love, Southern Family, a compilation album which plays as a love letter to growing up in the South. But it’s not all sweet tea and sunshine. Jason Isbell sings of his Pentecostal preaching grandpa on “God Is a Working Man,” while Morgane Stapleton (yes, Chris’ wife) turns the upbeat childhood ditty “You Are My Sunshine” into a plaintive Southern Gothic-sounding tale of woe. And then there’s Holly Williams‘ earthy lament “Settle Down,” Brandy Clark‘s stunning heartbreaker, “I Cried” and Shooter Jennings’ rowdy gospel-choir-laced offering, “Can You Come Over?”
With the release of Southern Family, we asked Cobb a few questions.
Southern Family is concept album, which aren’t exactly in vogue these days, especially with the rising popularity of playlists, which tend to focus on just one song. The artists here took the concept to heart, but were they “all in” from the start?
I don’t know why they all did it. I think everyone was really excited to be on an album all together, with each other.
Southern Family was inspired by the album White Mansions, a 1978 release that documented — through song — the lives of white people in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Where the heck did you find that one?
Shooter Jennings played me that album and it completely changed my life. (Shooter’s parents, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, each play a part and sing on White Mansions.)
You have an amazing track record for finding and/or cultivating talent. How do you find new artists? Do you have something akin to a Spidey sense that tingles when you see or hear something you like?
I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to meet talented folks, and through them I meet other talented people. I just follow a gut feeling about people.
You started your own label, Low Country Sounds. Is running a label fun for you?
I have a great team with Elektra, so it’s all been a blast so far.
On Saturdays I clean my house and blast music — usually Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous or Harry Potter movie soundtracks. What do you listen to in your spare time?
Lately I’ve been listening to Country Funk Vol. 2
What album do you consider to be the jewel of you record collection and why?
My original copy of White Mansions — it’s seriously where I steal half of my tricks!
Who are the biggest influences in your career?
The biggest influence is probably being a musician. Playing in a touring band, you really learn how hard it is to make a living in music.
How did you feel when you won a Grammy?
It doesn’t feel real yet.
You were born and raised in Georgia, lived for a time in L.A. and now call Nashville home. Who is your favorite sports team?
I’m not really into sports. I’ve got no other hobbies except for music.