Interview: Dave Cobb Talks ‘Southern Family’, RCA Studio A, Vinyl and More
Since the early 2000s, Dave Cobb has been making a name for himself as a producer, both in country music and with some artists outside of the genre. However, the Savannah, Ga., native has become particularly well known thanks to his work in recent years with Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. He’s won multiple Americana Music Association Awards and Grammy Awards, and although he’s not the one singing the songs, Cobb has been heavily influential in crafting the raw feel that those singer-songwriters are bringing back to prominence in country music.
On Friday (March 18), Cobb released a concept album, Southern Family (available via iTunes and Amazon, and through the Warner Music store). Featuring everyone from Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown to John Paul White and Anderson East, the project culls together 12 tracks that speak to life in the South, but also share truths and values that are more universal than they are geographically important. Prior to the record’s release, The Boot spoke with Cobb about how Southern Family came together, his role and process as producer overall, his new affiliation with one of Nashville’s most historic studios and more.
We should start with a pretty general question: What made this project important to you, and made it something that you really wanted to do?
I feel like I’ve made most of my career about passion projects, you know? Chasing down and working with Jason Isbell, or meeting Sturgill and going in[to the studio with him] completely just because I believe in him, chasing down Chris Stapleton and making records with him. I’ve always done very passion-oriented projects, and this is probably the most, in a way, selfish project I’ve ever done.
Somebody told me I should make a concept record, and I kind of laughed at him at first, then I came up with the idea of Southern Family, and it was a really great opportunity to take all my friends and people I really believed in and put them all on one album together and to kind of write about things that you know and things you grow up in … There’s a record called White Mansions that an English guy, Paul Kennerley, wrote and Glyn Johns produced, and [it] had Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and had Eric Clapton‘s band, and that’s always been my favorite record, the record that got me into country music. So it was really one of those things where it seemed a concept record was a really terrible idea, but it was a really good excuse to have all your friends together, and, luckily, everyone was excited about it, too, and said yeah. I can’t believe they said yeah.
… I don’t know if there’s any track record on concept records selling any records. It could be the death of my career, you know? … It’s totally done just because it’s a great opportunity to hear these stories, and what a great opportunity to get to work with people that I know and love, and then also new people that I love, too. It was really just a dream record in a lot of ways.
Other than the fact that this record involved working with multiple artists, was getting this project together and producing it different than producing an album with a single artist?
Well, each time I walked into the studio with each of these people, I wanted it to be about them. It wasn’t about the record as a whole; it was about their personal story. And [on] this record are these really intimate stories, and [the songs are] really exposing a lot … When I walked into the studio, [it] was always about making you feel the story and making you hear that artist’s voice. I treat that the same way when I make an album with a [single] artist, too: It’s about them, it’s not about me.
I didn’t want the record to have one run-on sound. It’s really a bunch of stories that are collected into one album, and they all sound different, and they all feel different. But I think it’s interesting how a lot of the stories all come from grandparents. I wanted it to come from grandparents and parents and children, and things you grew up culturally with …
But even though it’s all about Southern culture, you can appreciate it if you aren’t from the South and / or don’t live in the South. There are a lot of very universal themes.
Absolutely; you’re totally right about that. I think the reason why this was called Southern Family is because the people that I knew for the record were mostly Southern, so I think that was an easy thing. But, yes, you’re right: It is universal … Songs like [Chris and] Morgane Stapleton’s “You Are My Sunshine” are so universal, you know? And the family values are universal as well.
"Southern music is diverse. It’s not just country, it’s not just bluegrass, it’s all of it: It’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s soul, it’s blues."
Is there a particular track that really stands out to you? Say someone doesn’t want to listen to the whole record, just one song … What would you tell them?
To me, there’s several tracks that stand out, and I think everybody stepped up to the plate. There isn’t one that I would speak to over the others, but there are definitely songs that — John Paul White, “Simple Song,” you don’t have to like country music to like that song … He wrote [the] song as his grandmother, which I thought was really telling and really being transparent and digging really deep. It’s a beautiful song, and I love the melody of the song.
He was really the first track we cut for the album. It may stand out in that way, but there are other songs that are complete standouts: Brandy Clark singing “I Cried” live with us — and she’s pouring her heart out; you can hear it in her vocals — and Morgane Stapleton singing “You Are My Sunshine,” which is a song that everybody grows up with. When they told me about that song, I was like, “”You Are My Sunshine”? Really?” You know, “Out of all these songs, you guys are doing “You Are My Sunshine”?” Sometimes I moonlight with the Stapletons on guitar, and we went onstage, and before we went on, they were like, “We’re doing “Sunshine,” it’s in G, follow along.” So I go up there, and they start singing it like the way they sing it on the record, and it just knocked me out — I mean, so beautiful. I had to apologize afterwards …
So everybody just really dug. People went above and beyond in every way.
Anderson East is the first artist on your label, Low Country Sounds, and he also has a track on Southern Family. Obviously it makes sense to have him on there, but can you share more about his contribution?
I would have had him on the album whether he was signed to my label or not; he’s one of my super-close friends, and I love his voice, I love his singing. His track’s about his father and his mother going through divorce and his father kind of guiding the way through all the hard times he went through.
I didn’t want the record to be one dimensional, [so] I’m happy that he wrote that song and it’s got that kind of feel, because the record is Southern Family, and Southern music is diverse. It’s not just country, it’s not just bluegrass, it’s all of it: It’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s soul, it’s blues, and I’m glad he brought that element — the kind of soul element — to the foreground. He’s just really going for it and pouring it out, and at the end of it, I don’t even know how he talked after he sang. It’s on fire, that track.
You mentioned that John Paul White was the first to record for the album, and his song comes first on the final project, but how did you figure out the sequence from there?
To be honest with you, my friend and partner on the album, Greg sequenced the album. I was so close to it by the time we got done, I thought it was good for someone with fresh ears to sequence the album.
That makes sense. I know I asked you earlier to pick a favorite song or two, but I have to imagine that’s kind of like picking your favorite child.
Yeah, yeah, and I would lose a lot of friends!
Do you enjoy having a core set of artists that you work with, or are you eager to branch out and bring new acts into the fold?
I mean, I love working with new artists. I think it’s really great to work with somebody and see them get better and [better] their craft and to see them succeed. It’s the most rewarding thing ever. I love meeting new artists, I really do. I think that’s the most fun, in a lot of ways.
"I think the only common tie I try to do when I make records is probably the honesty in the songs or the honesty in the artist. I want it to always be about them and not about me. That’s probably the only signature I have, to try and avoid imprinting a sound on everybody. I want to hear them, I want to hear their voice and their sound."
So how do you decide who you want to work with?
To me, it’s all about a voice … it’s always about that kind of intangible thing. When you hear them sing — I’m into record-making, and I’ve had this epiphany recently: I want to make records that draw you to them as opposed to pushing you away. There are a lot of records that are so bombastic and [have] so much going on and [are] so over the top, it feels great immediately, but it wears on you …
I don’t know what it is; it’s a complete intangible, and there’s no way to scientifically explain it, but when I heard Chris Stapleton sing the first time and, like, my god, you know that it’s good, you know that it’s right. Same thing with Anderson East or Sturgill Simpson. You hear these people, and they have such distinct voices, and I think that’s what I’m attracted to the most. And I know them, they have great personalities as well.
… I try not to have a sound; I definitely try to even not have a genre, you know? I think the only common tie I try to do when I make records is probably the honesty in the songs or the honesty in the artist. I want it to always be about them and not about me. That’s probably the only signature I have, to try and avoid imprinting a sound on everybody. I want to hear them, I want to hear their voice and their sound.
No. I think they’re all artists. I don’t think there’s a difference at all. I mean, everybody is different, and every record is different, every approach is different, but I don’t think there’s an acclimation to country as opposed to rock. I think it’s just good people and great talents and finding out who they are. It’s all similar.
I know that you play on a lot of the albums that you produce. Is there a particular reason why?
I never got into music to be a producer, to be honest with you. I was always in a band since grade school, and I’ve always played since I can remember, so to me, producing records — I play to be the place-filler … I always fill holes. Sometimes it will be playing percussion just to kind of find a groove with the band.
I just hated the idea, to be honest with you, of the band in one room and the producer is in the other room, kind of judging their performances like professional diving or something. It feels really alienating, so I like being in the room with the bands 90 percent of the time, just to kind of — sometimes you just feel it more when you’re in the room. It’s easier to judge things and kind of hear what things matter. I don’t know, it’s less you against them and more of a team.
It’s less of that “Those that can’t do, teach” sort of thing.
Right, right. Sometimes it’s helping, sometimes it probably aggravates, but it’s okay, it’s fine.
It’s a room that I enjoyed working in. I remember the first time walking in there. [RCA Studio A] has been there for quite a while, and it’s like, my god, this is it, man. What a lucky dude to be in a space like this. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in there, but it’s overwhelming. It’s a huge place, and it’s got such huge history.
When I got the call from Aubrey Preston … he called me maybe a month ago on a weekend and said, “Hey, are you interested in moving in?” I said absolutely, so I hung up, and they called me back about five minutes later and said, “Are you sure?” I’m like, absolutely. He called me once more and said, “You think about it overnight … You still sure you want to do it?” I think it carries a lot of weight …
There are so many greats that came before me in that place and did so many great things. Hopefully I don’t ruin their reputation of it, but I’m excited to continue the history of it. I’m a huge student of the people that came before me who worked in there and what they did. I really got close to the place when we were making Chris Stapleton’s Traveller there; the place inspired the record in a lot of ways, you know?
… For all intents and purposes, it’s my studio. They’re letting me make my records in there, and then sometimes I’ll rent it out, but it has to be something that’s really meaningful to the story of the studio. I think my job is continuing the story, whatever that means, and making sure the legacy of the place continues. It’s not really for lease, but if Merle Haggard wants to make his Nashville record, the doors are open.
Do you feel that, as a producer, the space you’re in influences you?
Definitely. Environment definitely influences … Sometimes this one person in the room coming in and out changes everything, so yeah. I’m super hypersensitive to the way that people feel in an environment, for sure.
"I think I learn every time I walk in the studio, to be honest with you. I think the artist teaches me as much as they learn from me."
Is that a quality you’ve always had, or do you feel you’ve picked that up along the way?
I think I learn every time I walk in the studio, to be honest with you. I think the artist teaches me as much as they learn from me. I just always learn something new; every time I walk in the studio, I learn something new. I learn how to read everything more, you know? I think age is helping with that, too, to continue to just keep collecting ideas from other people and stories. It’s been a lot of fun to continue learning.
Is there anyone you haven’t produced that you’re particularly excited to hear from?
I would love to produce a Gary Clark Jr. record … I would love to work with him. We’ll see if we can sucker him into getting in the studio one day.
Southern Family will be out on vinyl at a later date, as are pretty much all of the albums you’ve produced. What makes it important to you to put your projects on vinyl and keep that format alive?
I think it’s a beautiful thing. I mean, I’m 41 years old, so when I was a kid, it was only records … I remember just getting the album covers, and you have to pay attention to a record, you can’t shuffle a record; you put it on, and you kind of have to pay attention, and you hold the record in your hand, and you could see the image the artist wants you to see, and you can see who made the record and read the lyrics or whatever. It’s a lot different than streaming.
… I have this weird perspective on vinyl that maybe a lot of people don’t: I think what’s really great about vinyl — like, the old records in particular — is the fact that it was humans playing together, professional humans playing together, and there wasn’t editing, and there wasn’t all the tricks you can do now with record-making, so I think people are just really attracted to humanity in old records and old vinyl, moreso than the vinyl even.
You can see that in how artists are returning to the live, all-in-one-room recording process.
Yeah, I think people are attracted to that. People want to hear mistakes, people want to hear humanity. Maybe some people don’t, but I do.
It doesn’t feel so unattainable.
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