Dave Cobb Is Producing The Hell Out Of Country Music
The wise man who made Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson’s breakout albums explains how he’s keeping country music honest.
After producing albums for so many of country music’s critical darlings these past few years—Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell among them—Dave Cobb is gearing up to release an album of his own. Not as a singer, but as a master aesthete: his compilation Southern Family, out March 18 on his new imprint Low Country Sound, brings together most of the usual suspects alongside new collaborators like Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, and Holly Williams.
Southern Family is a conceptual record, with each contributor singing classic-sounding stories about where they came from. But the more I’ve listened to it, and to Cobb’s other recent output, the less this all seems a matter of simply looking back. On the surface, all the acoustic guitar and lap steel does provide a sort of retro counter-movement to the sonic bloat of today’s country radio, as it has incorporated EDM synths and hip-hop cadences. But Cobb and his artists have also done much to subtly push country music forward. It’s not just Waylon and Willie that they’re referencing, but Motown and Stax-era soul, using songs like “Tennessee Whiskey” almost like a creative, revisionist history that reconnects styles that share deep roots but that have long since diverged.
When I met Dave Cobb for lunch in New York a few weeks ago, when he in town to play backing guitar for Chris Stapleton’s Saturday Night Live set, we talked about how country is changing, its connections to soul, and how he’s forming a coalition of artists to make what he calls honest music. Now that he’s won Grammys and CMAs left and right, we also discussed about which projects he’s got coming next. (Spoiler: it’s not Sturgill Simpson. But hopefully he can will a record into being with Morgane Stapleton, Chris’s wife.)
Chris Stapleton’s recent success reminds me of another rootsy country musician you produced a few years earlier, Jamey Johnson—just bigger. But maybe it’s just the beard.
DAVE COBB: When Jamey came out, Jamey didn't have a big beard, you know. I think that kind grew with it. It was just his songs and the beard came later. I don't think people went after him for an aesthetic, I think people went after him because of raw talent and purity that he represented in his music. Chris was just Chris. Chris always looked like that, you know. I’ve never known Chris looking different, so I don't think he's putting on a costume. That’s who he is. We're all nostalgic for old music and old cars and old guitars. It's just classic, kind of what his thing is.
Do you think the mainstream is more open to that classic sound now?
I’ll probably get massacred for saying this, but people go on and on about how vinyl sounds so amazing. “Oh my god, you have to listen to this old record on vinyl.” I don't think the vinyl is the only component to that. It was the purity of the music and the talent, the players and the quality recordings. Back in the day, if you were a great singer, you’d record with the best possible band in the world. You couldn't use technology to fool people. Now, with unlimited tracks and unlimited possibilities in the studio, you can pull some tricks. I'm trying to make records feel open and honest, and clear the way for the singer, clear the way for the voice. So if anything, maybe these old vinyl records are about hearing the singer, really hearing them.
When we go in the studio, we don't worry about hit singles. We just worry about how it makes us feel inside the studio. And maybe does the band love it, do their daughters love it, do their families love it, do their friends that stop by love it? It's very selfish in a lot of ways. We're not trying to play a game. We're just trying to play music.
Part of that feeling of honesty, for someone like Stapleton, seems to be how he incorporates classic soul music.
He's a student to all that stuff. He knows it inside and out. And he got so much of it, you know. Every time we hang out, Freddie King is blasting in the background. And Chris can do good-ass Freddie King, vocally and guitar-wise. Great soul music, nobody can hate it. It’s impossible to hate. You can hate metal, you can hate jazz, you can hate polka, but you can't hate great soul music, and nobody in the world can hate Motown, you know? Seriously. That music is universal, and I think its lineage is reshaping modern music.
Why did you start your imprint, Low Country Sound? Is it to build a business structure for this more free-flowing sound, outside what radio is doing?
I did the deal with Atlantic Records and Elektra because of where that whole company started from. Ahmet Ertegun, that guy was a music lover, and he signed things that really moved him. He was signing based on love of music instead of, you know, pop. And I love the purity of that. And all my favorite band were on Atlantic and Elektra. Led Zeppelin, I love Zeppelin. AC/DC was on there, and Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. It so much great music and great history, and I think if anything I align with the history of that specific company. And the people I'm working with have the same mindset. We're all trying foster, I don’t know, honest music really.
So I'm taking over RCA’s Studio A in Nashville. That’s gonna be the clubhouse. I'll have my publishing and my artists there, I'll make records there. I want to pick up all these people that have similar alliances, similar views on music, similar views on art, to be able to kind of intermingle and just see what I can do to start everything up. And I'm not saying I've got anything against anything, I'm just saying, like, I want a safe haven to feel like it’s OK to make art for the sake of art and not worry about anything else. I think if enough of us band together and do that, maybe we'll have a fighting chance. If not, we're just gonna have a great time.
Seeing Miranda Lambert on Southern Family is exciting but also a little surprising, since she’s bit more establishment. Are you going to be producing her next record?
No, she's got a longtime producer, and he's one of my heroes. No, I would never step on people’s shoes, you know.
How did you get her for Southern Family?
It’s funny because I remember years ago first hearing about her. I'm a huge fan of her voice. I think she's one of the best singers on the planet, and I think she comes from a really pure place as well. She’s been pretty honest about her career. So when we were talking about the concept of the album and who would be on it, she was immediately in the first conversation. But we thought there was no way. She’s a huge megastar, and maybe she didn't know who we were. We’re the little guys. So we didn't reach out because we were too scared to.
Long story short, I happened to run into her at a place in Nashville. She had heard about the record, and she was like, “I'm not cool enough to be on your record?” It really took me aback, like, “Are you kidding me? Of course I’d love you on it!” So she came in and we did the song. It’s a beautiful song. I love it. She sang her heart out, and she was the most amazing person to hang out with because of her dedication. We were messing up and she was nailing the vocals every time, and she hung in there with us. We just had a good time.
Was that when she met Anderson East—her boyfriend and also the first person you signed to your label?
No, it had nothing to do with Southern Family. They met a “Live on The Green” show in Nashville, completely separate of us.
He’s not really a country artist. Was working with him partly so you wouldn’t be pigeonholed?
You know, when I was a kid, I didn't listen to country music at all. I'm from Savannah, Georgia, and I grew up really heavy in the Pentecostal church. You didn’t hear a lot of secular music, but I would sneak out and listen to Black Sabbath records. Anything but country. It was actually the Rolling Stones that led me a little bit to country. And where do they get their country from? From Gram Parsons. I thought, Oh, that's pretty cool. I came into country the backdoor. Even Elvis took me back to country.
As for Anderson, and really any of my projects, if I'm attracted to something I'm gonna do it, you know. I have this band called Rival Sons, and they're one of best rock bands, period. It sounds like classic rock, and to me its a blast.
That’s funny—when I interviewed Sturgill Simpson’s guitarist, he mentioned Rival Sons too.
Jay Buchanan, the singer for Rival Sons, is how I heard about Chris Stapleton. I was still living in L.A. and he played me Chris through iPhone and it stopped me in my tracks. Jay is one of the best singers on the planet, so for Jay to say this guy is fucking great, it had to be great. That's when Chris first came on my radar, and I wanted to chase him down and work with him at that moment, seven years ago.
I’ve heard a few stories about you chasing down people you want to work with, like Jason Isbell.
I remember when I was a kid, when I went after something I would cut a picture out of the magazines and go, “This is what I want for Christmas, Mom. Don't forget about it.” I get this crazy mono-focus, and I've always been like that. I don't wanna wait around for stuff, I wanna do things I'm really passionate about. When I say chase, I never stalked anybody. You're waiting and hoping that you are going to land or an opportunity to work with these people.
When did you start working on Southern Family? With all the attention on you lately, some people might think you’re trying to cash in.
No, this has been going for a year. Actually, two years, way before any Grammy's stuff. It was all my friends, you know. I asked Jason, “Hey man, would you do this?” He's like, “Of course.” It was a lot a lot of time putting this together, and it’s no easy hill to climb. I can't believe we're at the peak of it now. It's a really big undertaking, and on the hindsight side, I'm like, “What? Am I fucking crazy?” I don't know if its something I could repeat. I think I pulled every favor I could possibly ever pull. And I'm not that guy. I hate asking for favors. But I'm really happy that all my friends stepped up and came on the album, you know.
Why wasn’t Sturgill Simpson on the album?
I would have loved for him to have been on it, and I asked to be on it. I think he would have been perfect for the album, but he couldn’t do it. It was a management decision—he had to get an album out. He and I are like brothers, too. I mean, such an important part of my Southern family.
Did you produce his upcoming album? I’ve heard mixed reports.
We started a new record in January, and, you know, he'd just got off tour. We’re gonna try to go back in the summer. Our schedules didn't line up, we just made some demos. He produced his upcoming one all by himself. It’s a real personal record. He's a genius. He really is.
And I heard you’re working on a new record from Holly Williams?
Yes, I haven't done the record yet. We were talking about doing it, and she has a bunch of stores so she opened another store. So we're gonna do it, I think, in the fall. But she came and did the track for Southern Family, which I was blown away with.
It was great to hear Brandy Clark on there. Was that the first time you’d worked together?
That was the only time we've ever worked together. I just think she's one of the best songwriters around. We recorded with a live band, in the Sinatra Room. There’s no separation, so we're playing along and I think everybody in the room was going, "Holy shit." I mean, I knew she was a great singer, but to witness in person like that, it was… world class. One of the best, period. It was one of the moments when you just close your eyes. I have a six-year-old daughter, and we bought her a film camera to take pictures, and when she ran out of film she decided to take pictures with her brain. She’d say, "Snap, snap, snap!" I think in that moment of time, I was taking a picture in my brain. “Remember this,” you know. “Click.”
You’ve had this great run with three male artists, I’m hoping we see the same attention to women like Brandy and Holly who are working in a similar space.
And Morgane Stapleton [Chris Stapleton’s wife].
Are you working on a record?
No, we have not started a record. We haven't done a record, but she's singing on the album, and she's tremendous. I mean she's one of the best singers alive. She and Chris are a really big part of my sort of family, so I had to have them on the album. We really wanted to showcase her, too. She's so good. I think people will freak out about her.
I have a real tendency to will stuff into happening, you know? I try to will things, but that's gonna happen on their time. They have so much going on right now, they don't get a break. It’s definitely this parallel universe, you know? You just show up and smile and make sure you don't miss it.