For Dave Cobb, Music Is As Much About Where You're From As Where You're Going
Originally published on Slant.
To say producer Dave Cobb is in the midst of a "hot streak" would vastly be underestimating his recent influence on popular music.
His collaborators include some of the best artists in the game right now, like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, Houndmouth, Lake Street Dive, Shooter Jennings, Anderson East, and many, many more.
Cobb was honored earlier this year with not just one, but two GRAMMY awards, taking home prizes for Chris Stapleton's Traveller (Best Country Album) and Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free (Best Americana Album).
While Cobb's repertoire skews alt-country or Americana, that Dave Cobb Sound exists outside of conventional genres. It focuses on the artist's voice and the subtle, raw details that come from an unvarnished live take in the studio. Cobb lets his artists' tracks breathe a little bit, and in turn, those records have more heft and weight.
There's a reason why an album like Traveller puts listeners in a backroom juke joint (like on "Might As Well Get Stoned") or rolling down the interstate (like on "Traveller"). His genius is moored in simplicity and fidelity to what makes an artist great in the first place.
His newest project is Southern Family, which Entertainment Weekly calls "... the year's biggest country all-star record," and features an incredible lineup including Zac Brown, Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, Morgane and Chris Stapleton, Brandy Clark and more. The record is an ode to one of the principal foundations of Southern culture: family.
I had the chance to talk with Cobb about the first time he heard Chris Stapleton, helping artists realize their potential, and how living in California made him fall in love with the South.
SD: How did you first get into producing?
DC: Technically, I was in a band. We were signed and we were stuck in a record deal and we couldn’t get out and anything we wrote for the band would go to this label and we hated what it was doing with it. And so I started messing around in the studio. I was always in studio, but I started really trying to learn what I was doing and the first couple things I did got record deals. It seemed like a way to continue being a musician, but get out of this trapped deal and be able to sleep in my own bed at night.
SD: You’re based out of Nashville, right?
DC: I am now.
SD: How do you think that Nashville has changed in recent years?
DC: I grew up in Georgia, so I would come to Nashville to play on tour years ago. It’s a different city now. The town has always been here. It’s always been Music City, U.S.A. But I think now it’s more than just country. There’s everything here. There seems to be kind of a fringe folk scene here, there’s a heavy rock scene, there’s blues, soul. It feels really wide open right now.
It's the capital for Americana as well. There’s so much music everywhere all the time. It’s continued to grow since the first time I ever came to Nashville.
SD: What did it feel like standing up on the GRAMMY stage, not one time, but two times for two of the more critically acclaimed records of the year?
DC: I thought I was gonna pass out. It’s not that easy. It sounds like, "Oh, you’ll get up there and say this and this and that, thank you," and I don’t know how anybody composes themselves to say a word. It’s very overwhelming. It’s a lot to take in.
You work so hard your whole life never thinking you’d even get to a place where you could get a GRAMMY and then you’re on that stage and you’re looking out and the room’s spinning up there. It’s very, very difficult to stand. Just as exciting as it was to be on stage, I was more excited to get off.
SD: When you first meet an artist, what is the first thing that you’re trying to nail down or figure out to help with your strategy for producing that record?
DC: Well, I think if I meet somebody and I don’t see the vision, it’s not the right artist for me to work with. I target people that I think have whatever this is, it’s a tangible quality to them — whether it’s incredible voice, or incredible songs or both. Or just this presence when you’re around them. I look for that. That’s not tangible. And if I don’t see it and if I have to make it up, I shouldn’t be working with the artist.
SD: Can you remember the first time you heard Chris Stapleton’s music?
DC: Absolutely. I was living in LA and this band I work with called Rival Sons, the singer of that band is one of the best singers on the planet and he shared me Chris Stapleton and The Steeldrivers off his iPod. And when I heard it, I’m like, "Shit dude, I gotta work with that guy."
It took years to be in a place where I actually got to meet him and make a record, but absolutely from that very day, there was a strong agenda for me to get in the studio with him. And it just happened to happen seven years after the fact, but at least I got to get in with him. It took my breath away how good he was, how natural he was.
SD: Do you help out with the writing a lot of the time when you’re producing? Or does it change record to record?
DC: I do help out with writing on lots of records. Chris Stapleton, no. Or Jason Isbell. Those guys walk in the studio and just brilliant songs from the get-go.
SD: How did the concept for Southern Family first emerge? When did you first think of doing something like this?
DC: To give credit where credit is due, a friend of mine said you should do a concept record, because there was this record I kept telling everybody about for years called White Mansions by an English guy, Paul Kennerley, produced by Glyn John, with Jessi Colter, Waylon Jennings and Eric Clapton’s band. That record really meant something to me. I wear people out talking about it all the time.
So my friend suggested I should do a concept record and I kind of laughed at him. And then I was in New York in a hotel and it just kind of came to me the concept of Southern family, cause it’s always a great story to tell about growing up. About your brother or mother or grandparent or unborn child, whatever it is. It’s these beautiful, colloquial Southern stories. I thought that would be a good bonding topic for all the artists I would like to be on the album. That’s how the conception started, just really ripping off Paul Kennerley’s record White Mansions and coming up with our own version of it.
SD: What would you say fascinates you about the South and Southern culture?
DC: I was born in Savannah, Georgia and raised in Georgia and moved to California when I was 27. And when I was in California, I was really removed from the South and I was in LA for almost seven years. I started hearing things like when my daughter was born, I would play her this George Jones record everyday by her crib. Just becoming romantic, getting away from it.
And I heard Jason Isbell and the Drive By Truckers and those songs resonate so heavily with Southeastern culture. These little things kept sneaking in. Hearing Chris through an iPod. It kept drawing me back. There’s an intangible thing in the South and I think it’s a church influence a lot, it’s the African American influence in music and it’s the church music, it’s the landscape, it’s bluegrass, it’s soul. It kind of all comes from here. You realize where it came from and you appreciate where you come from. And then it all came full circle and I ended up falling in love with the South, country music, but it happened when I moved to California.
SD: How difficult was it coordinate a project like this, bringing all these artists together?
DC: Incredibly, incredibly difficult. When I first started thinking about who would be on the record, I asked Jason Isbell and he was like, "Absolutely, I’m in," so that was very easy. I asked Stapleton, he said, "I’m in." So asking people is very easy. The hard part is actually getting in the studio. People have crazy tour schedules and families. The planning was very hard, the asking was very easy. So it took a bit of patience, but I’m so proud of it.
SD: Who would you say are some producers that inspire the sound that you look for on records when you’re making them?
DC: Glyn Johns, number one. I obviously love George Martin, I love Brendan O’Brien from Georgia. I love Owen Bradley, '50s Nashville. I have a lot of heroes, that’s for sure. Rick Hall from FAME and Muscle Shoals. Those guys always seem to manage to get the intangible on albums, that feeling. And that’s what I’m looking for, always.
SD: Can you tease or fill us in on a few records that you’re working on right now, or records that are about to come out besides 'Southern Family?'
DC: There are a couple records I’m excited about. It sounds really funny, but my cousin, Brett Cobb, I just did a record with him. He signed to Low Country Sound on Elektra, and he is just tremendous.
He’s one of my favorite writers on the planet. It sounds weird to promote your own cousin, but he’s so brilliant and I’m so proud to have gotten to make an album with him. That’ll be coming out probably in the summer. Just look out for him, he’s really really talented.
SD: Do you have any dream artists that you’d love to work with on a record? Are there any people that you would be like, "I would love to produce this artist’s album?"
DC: There’s always lots. If I aimed high, it would be Paul McCartney, which will never happen.
SD: You never know, man.
DC: He’s way up there for me. To be honest with you, I like working with people that are new. I think that’s the most fun a lot of the time. It’s seeing somebody become who they’re supposed to be or helping facilitate somebody’s dream. I think that’s always the most fun thing.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo: Michael W. Bunch