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An Outsider Remakes Nashville's Traditional Sound

Producer Dave Cobb in the studio at his Nashville home. Cobb's work has added traditional notes to the slick sound that dominates country, but he challenges the idea that what he's doing is more "authentic."
Laura E. Partain for NPR
Producer Dave Cobb in the studio at his Nashville home. Cobb's work has added traditional notes to the slick sound that dominates country, but he challenges the idea that what he's doing is more "authentic."

If Dave Cobb gets excited while you're talking to him about music, he'll grab a guitar from the bank of them he keeps in the chill-out room in his Green Hills home studio and play a riff. It could be from an Elvis song, or one by Led Zeppelin, or his favorite band, the Beatles. It might even be from a country song.

Country is what Cobb is allegedly revolutionizing, or at least renewing, through the breakthrough albums he's produced for Nashville's young triumvirate of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. Those award-winning discs have heralded a new era that many claim is a return to a time before slick production values "corrupted" the music's mainstream. Cobb has been gathering strength as a producer for a decade; 2015 was the year he broke through. His second album with Isbell, Something More Than Free, simultaneously topped the rock, country and Americana charts and Stapleton's Traveller swept the Country Music Associations Awards while Simpson continued to ride the universal accolades he received for 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.Yet Cobb doesn't consider himself an avatar of country purity; quite the opposite. He's a polymath who views Nashville as a big town that benefits from everything, from the garage rock being made in East Nashville home studios to the cream of what comes from Music Row, and who thinks words like "authentic" can be dangerous.

A highly diverse musical background made Cobb this way. The first band he fell in love with as a Georgia teenager was The Meters — "probably the funkiest band of all time," he says — and his deepest influences, the ones that come up the most in conversation, are those turn-of-the-1970s albums by bands like the Rolling Stones that recast Southern sounds within a framework that was countercultural, cosmopolitan and big enough to rock arenas. Though he's often pegged as a champion of country traditionalism, in fact Cobb is just the opposite: an iconoclast whose work reminds listeners that, in fact, this most lineage-obsessed genre was always an amalgam of blues, soul and church music; white, black and brown; the old-timey and the modern, filtered through the consciousness of musicians bent on progressing within the ever-evolving South.

All the music floating around in Cobb's head shapes his genius as a producer. Genius is a fancy word to apply to the genial 43-year-old, who projects the charm of a shaggy Christian Bale in a full beard and a black band t-shirt as he shows a reporter around Low Country Sound, an unpretentious few rooms with vintage tile and lots of great gear in the back of the home he and his family bought because it's close to this city's only Trader Joe's. But it's one that Cobb's having to accept, given his incredible recent track record, which includes new country standard-bearers and rising genre-crossers Houndmouth, A Thousand Horses, Anderson East and, coming out in February, Lake Street Dive.

Cobb arrived in Nashville after a roaming apprenticeship that brought him into Atlanta recording studios, on the road with a Southern Britpop band, and recording rock bands in Los Angeles. Having developed his inclusive approach to roots music working with country upstarts Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson, he soon became one of the go-to guys in a city teeming with great producers. Then, in 2014, the aforementioned triumvirate arose, and suddenly (it seemed, to those who hadn't been paying close enough attention before) Cobb was everywhere. By the end of that year, he'd won two Americana Music Awards; by the end of 2015, he's racked up a CMA album of the year Award for Stapleton's Traveller and a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year. If he doesn't win that in February, it's only because not every Grammy voter pays attention to Nashville.

/ Laura E. Partain for NPR
Laura E. Partain for NPR

For all of his accomplishments, Cobb couldn't be a more accessible guy, taking his success in sunny stride. A recent conversation at Low Country Sound abounded with references to the weekend BS sessions and family-style dinners that generated his remarkable work with Simpson, Stapleton and Isbell, just on the other side of the wall of Cobb's studio. "It's more like a bunch of pals hanging out all the time," he said of his creative approach — belying his considerable attention to recording detail and almost scholarly music-nerd braininess.

Cobb's newest project, the concept album Southern Family, is a case in point. Coming out on his own Elektra Records imprint in March, it features his closest allies in creating what he simply calls "honest" music, including East, Isbell, Stapleton and the latter singer's gifted wife, Morgane, among many others. The album was inspired by Cobb's favorite lost work, 1978's out-of-print A&M release White Mansions.He has a vinyl copy of the album, a song cycle set in Civil War times performed by Americana music forbears like Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, propped up in the window of the booth in Low Country Sound. "It's the way it makes you feel, that record," Cobb says. "It's cinematic."

Cobb picks up the album and hands it over for examination; his copy is worn, but carefully kept. No rips in the cover. He could continue to talk about this stuff all day. But a band has arrived — Texas Red Dirt rockers Whiskey Myers — and there's work to do. "Hey, man!" he calls to the guitarist, Cody Tate, who's unraveling a power cord. "Let's get going." Time to take all those ideas, the ones that make Cobb the producer of 2015, and make some music.

Your path reveals an interesting musical geography. You've spent time in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and now Nashville — major music cities that are very different from each other and from New York.

To be honest, my first city was Savannah, Georgia, where I'm from. My grandmother is a Pentecostal minister, and going to church every Sunday we had bass guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, and pedal steel and all the music was hymnal based. Those people don't cut their hair, they don't wear makeup, they don't have TV's in their house, and so you get taken with this hymnal stuff and the power and the beautiful arrangements. And this American music foundation. I think that's where it started. I think the African American churches were singing from the same hymnals we used, and our church was mixed as well.

I grew up in the South and you would hear somebody blasting Travis Tritt and then you would hear them blasting Snoop Dogg.

And your family moved to Atlanta when you were a teenager?

I went to high school in Atlanta. I was around so much R&B and soul music, and I went through two years of my life only listening to funk. I wanted to be in the Meters so bad. With the Meters, there was a pocket and a groove, and I think any kind of music that I've ever liked has always had that. Gospel has a pocket and a groove. But the Meters, they're probably the funkiest band of all-time, and I just wanted to be around that.

There were also bands like Fishbone; I adored them, and they would cover like "Freddie's Dead" or something, and you'd go, "Wait a minute, that's not their song," and then you start finding where it all came from. I think that — and there were bands like King's X that I loved at the time, and I would find out where their musical influences are and then you also discover Curtis Mayfield and you have that guitar play and that feel and you follow Curtis Mayfield to Booker T and the MGs and you're just like, "wow." You start to hear Steve Cropper play and you start diving into everything that is Stax and then obviously Motown is always there. That's probably part of everybody's DNA.

How did you get into the music scene down there?

I met this guy, Darin Prindle, who worked for Dallas Austin [as an engineer]. He brought me in on session stuff. That was the first time I'd seen studios, and to kind of be around studios — I never wanted to leave it. So, this guy, Darin, took a lot of time with me. I was a kid and he was maybe 30 years old. He would take me to sessions and let me hang out.

So, this is like the height of LaFace Records --

Oh, it was the height of Atlanta. Jermaine Dupri had So So Def and Dallas had Darp Studios, and it was huge business with Brandy and Monica. TLC was making records at that point. I got to see that from afar and play on a couple sessions for Dallas and one for Jermaine, on his album. I just thought the studio thing was the coolest. Atlanta then was like Nashville now. It felt like that. It was alive. There were so many bands, and the level of musicianship was really high. It was a great scene and a really supportive scene.

Was there a rock scene, too? Not just an urban scene.

Oh yeah, that's what I was more in more than anything else was the rock scene. The Black Crowes are from Atlanta, of course, and there were bands like Collective Soul and artists like Shawn Mullins and John Mayer. I wound up playing guitar in a band [the Tender Idols] and toured straight for years. The singer was British and we all liked that stuff — we played with Muse early on, and we opened for Blur and all these cool bands. I thought the mid-'90s British scene was really cool.

When you're young you just try everything until you figure out what looks good on you. I definitely went from being into ska — Madness, the English Beat and The Specials — to being into '90s rock like Hum and Sunny Day Real Estate, but it seemed like there were records that always kept coming back. The Beatles have never left; they're always my favorite band. They're the best songwriters of all time and those records feel incredible; their arrangements are brilliant, and the production is brilliant, the recordings are brilliant. They're perfect records to me.

After a while you ended up in Los Angeles, which, strangely, is where you started making country music, with Shooter Jennings.

It wasn't until I moved to California that I started getting really home sick for the South. I have a daughter. We named her Emma Jo because I wanted her to be kind of Southern. She's born in L.A., at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and I gave her the most Southern name possible. We moved to Nashville and there's like six Emma Jos in her class.

When I got out there is when I met Shooter Jennings. We connected via Ministry and Skinny Puppy, that's what we were talking about, which had nothing to do with country music at all. Somehow we wound up working on a country record [2005's Put the "O" Back in Country] and that was my first record that did well. It led me to Nashville. All of a sudden there was this musical reconnection with the things I grew up around.

Did you and Shooter look to other California country artists, like Dwight Yoakam, for inspiration?

I don't think so. To be honest with you I didn't have a whole lot of knowledge of that. Probably my knowledge of California country ended at Gram Parsons and The Eagles.

Lyrics drove me to country music, and I think maybe what I wanted to do is to find a way to make country records feel like all the other records I adored, but with those lyrics.

So, was Gram a model for you?

I really adore him. I think he's fantastic, but no. I know how influential he was, and he influenced the Stones, and that influenced rock and roll. So, maybe I was more influenced by people he influenced, you know?

When we did that first album, Shooter started playing the really great country music. I didn't really know that music growing up. I mean, my parents would buy records like Jim Nabors sings Kenny Rogers.Kmart would have these kinds of albums. It was never Dolly. It was never the real thing.

Shooter's music was ahead of its time — those albums you did with him are very much in line with Sturgill's stuff, and Jason's.

I think he was the first guy to really make one of those records. That music would've been home right now, in this moment, and you know, a lot of my tricks I owe to him. I learned from him, just a ton. When we made the first record, we made it minus the label. Then they got signed after the record was made and it got put out. There was nobody waiting on the record, and there was nobody knocking down his door. So, the record was made purely just to have fun and to make a cool record.

You made three albums with Shooter, and worked with Jamey Johnson during that time, and the Long Beach rock band Rival Sons. But then you decided to move to Nashville.

I moved here in 2011. I think I moved here for the same reason everybody else is moving here now. I moved here because I felt like it's mecca for music. I've never lived in a city that had the energy, musically, that Nashville has. The fact that I could go out to any bar tonight and see something that's really badass — everynight. There's so much to be discovered. There's so much to be found. I moved to Nashville because Chris Stapleton lived here, Sturgill lived here, Jason Isbell lived here. It's easy to connect when you're in the same neighborhood. If I had been somewhere else that had been remote it would've been a to-do to fly in. It wouldn't have happened organically. I'm here because the talent is here.

There's a lot of talent in Los Angeles, but I think it's harder to find.

In L.A., there was no local scene at all. It's just too expensive. It's just too expensive to be an artist in Los Angeles, and same in New York in a lot of respects. It's too expensive to be able to rehearse the way you need to rehearse. It's too expensive to relax and be able to write those songs you need to write. Nashville is the only place that I've ever seen where art beats commerce. So that's why I'm here, and if it goes to Bermuda, I'll move to Bermuda.

/ Laura E. Partain for NPR
Laura E. Partain for NPR

When you got to Nashville, you started working with more country and Americana artists. Did you feel like you were entering the scene as an outsider?

Absolutely from the outside. I think I kind of fell into it. I don't think I chased it at all. I'm positive I didn't chase it.

Maybe with age I started getting more into lyrics. I think when I was a kid I didn't care about lyrics. I only cared about melody and a feeling, and I think the older I got — you know, when I heard "Outfit" by Drive-By Truckers, lyrically it crushed me to the core. It was like everything that you are kind of surrounded by growing up in the Southeast. Isbell was definitely the first guy that got me — he just hits it, you know? I definitely wanted to chase him down and find a way to work with him

So lyrics drove me to country music, and I think maybe what I wanted to do is to find a way to make country records feel like all the other records I adored, but with those lyrics. And voice. I'm always looking for a voice.

You did track down those voices, including Jason Isbell.

Traci Thomas [Isbell's manager] really facilitated that. There was a talk of us getting together, and I met them one time and a show at the Five Spot in East Nashville and we talked about working together. We had all these grandiose plans, and then I got a call from Traci saying he had met Ryan Adams and Ryan was going to sign Jason to the label, put him on tour and make the record, and I'm like well great, because actually I love Ryan Adams. But then that fell apart, and I got a call.

So he came by and all I did was play him the Bridge Over Troubled Water album by Simon & Garfunkel. We didn't really talk too much. He didn't know me for anything and I didn't really know him at all, and I just told him, 'Listen to this record. When you hear these songs you hear them acoustic, right? But they're not acoustic at all.' It's a brilliant production [by Roy Halee]. You feel like it's them just playing a song on acoustic guitar but it's not. I mean, it's like people singing in cathedrals and drums in elevator shafts and — it's like an opera. But it feels very intimate. When he's singing the lyrics to "Only Living Boy In New York," you feel like you're in his brain, you know? It's amazing.

When we made the record [Isbell's Southeastern] it sounded nothing like that record, but that was the influence. We went in a week and a half after that meeting, not knowing each other, and he was getting married and he had all these things going on, but somehow it just came out. It was weird. It was a very easy record to make.

What you're saying about playing Jason that Simon & Garfunkel music is important, I think. One of the bug-bears of roots music in general is the oppressive idea of authenticity — that it only can be attained in a certain way, and that craft and studio magic detract from it. But you're saying something else.

I read an interview with a famous producer once, and they were talking about how they love to make it sound like you're in the room with the band — like you're at the band's rehearsal and you're hearing the best rehearsal ever. I feel exactly the opposite of that. I feel like I want to make the record sound like it's from outer space. When I listen to certain songs — "Tomorrow Never Knows" by The Beatles is an example — I don't even know how they made that. I technically know, being a producer. I understand it now, but it sounds like it's from another universe, and I love that, when I can't figure out how a record came together.

You play guitar on many of the albums you produce. How much of your production style is just about just providing a free space, and how much of it is providing the right equipment, the right gear, having vintage gear available?

You know, I love gear and I'm obsessed with it and I have a lot and I collect it and prize it, but I don't think it makes records. I think a lot of it is the people you're surrounded with — be it the engineer in the room, how he affects the vibe, the different players, how their hang affects the vibe. I think that's number one: Having the right people around.

Number two is actually having players who know that when the singer hits the word, to get quiet, and make space for it, and come up when the singer's not singing, and ebb and flow. I do play a lot on the records I produce, and I think I act like a human tambourine or a percussion instrument to find that feeling, to get that swagger. I love Jimmy Miller, who did those great Rolling Stones records [like Beggar's Banquetand Let It Bleed] because he found that with them. I like that, creating the space — creating the space in the song, creating the space for people to have fun.

When you say creating the space, it sounds very stand-offish, but in fact, it's not. It's interventionist — you're there, but maybe in a quiet way. You're participating, but you're not orchestrating. You're not Phil Spector.

No, no. But I think it's very cool to play on some of these records and to part of the band because all of a sudden you don't have this adversarial role between producer and artist. I'm not sitting in a control room with a piece of paper looking at them and rating them like an Olympic diving judge.

Working with artists who are dubbed "country" or "Americana" when your influences include a lot of rock and other stuff also changes the recording process.

When I'm making these country records, you know, when somebody plays something and it's purely country — in my head, I'm hearing The Rolling Stones. I'm hearing Glen Campbell. I'm hearing Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, or pretty much anything but straight country. I'll mention something and then they translate it into country. I'll go so far left-field that I think they — maybe it's a good sparring thing that happens.

Have you encountered resistance?

They're always open to it. Everybody has been really cool. I think they love those records too. I think it's just bringing it out. They all have it in them. Every artist I work with, they all have really good musical taste.

Let's talk about your friend Sturgill Simpson. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which you also made here at Low Country Sound, was his huge breakthrough. People have called it "psychedelic country," but I think that's just one element of what you all accomplished on that album.

It wasn't meant to be a psychedelic country record. I can tell you there was no "meant to be" anything on that record. It was recorded in like four days, and some of the songs were done and written and then some of them were made up on the spot in the studio. I don't think the world was waiting on a Sturgill record at that point. There was no pressure. Thirty Tigers [the Nashville hub for independent artists] had put out the previous record, but we really didn't know where the new record was going to go. We came in and just really goofed off. There are a lot of inspirations on that record — like I love the way Elvis records feel, and there are a lot of parallels on Metamodernwith Elvis.

Mid-late Elvis, though, not early Elvis.

"In The Ghetto" Elvis. And we were listening to Bill Withers and just weird stuff that had nothing to do with country when we made that record. I mean, Sturgillis country. When he sings, he's country. So, he could probably get away with making a disco record and you'd still think it's country because he is country.

Sturgill also has an amazing band, which came together around Metamodern, right?

The drummer from the rock band I work with, , wound up marrying a girl from Estonia, and he was living over there, and he sends me a Facebook message saying, 'Hey check out my friend Little Joe. He wants to move to America and play the blues." He sends me some video clips and this guy [guitarist Laur Joamets] was just devastating. Sturgill was just over at the house and I think we were just having dinner or something, and I go, "Man, check this guy out. We should get him over." So Sturgill got him over. Within a week he had learned country music. I mean he was just that good of a player that he became country. And he's one of the best country players alive now.

The drummer, Miles — I'd done this audition for putting a band together for Interscope years ago, and I found him on YouTube playing a Raconteurs cover. He was sixteen, and it just freaked me out. I though, my god, this kid's insane. So he came down with his dad and auditioned. They drove down from Kentucky to Nashville. It didn't work out for that particular band, but when we were talking about putting together a band for Sturgill, I was like, "Man, there's a guy. I saw him when he was really young. I haven't talked to him in years. Let's look him up." So we looked him up and he happens to be from the same place from Sturgill's from, and he, again, just became the best country drummer ever. He just really listened, and we fed him great records, and now he's one of the best.

Was a moment in that process where it just gelled and you just saw that Sturgill's band was going to be exceptional?

When we made Metamodern, Sturgill started to talk: "My band. My band. My band." It went from being guys he was playing with to "my band." So I think it was a band mentality, which is really cool. The one reason we rushed to make that record is because all of a sudden they started to have a sound. So we wanted to capture that moment in time before politics or money or labels or anything else got in the way.

With Chris Stapleton, was he a friend, too?

I heard about Stapleton through Rival Sons, too. The singer, Jay Buchanan, is one of the best I've ever heard, and I respect his opinion a lot. He said they'd met Chris or somebody who was related with him at a truck stop, when Chris was in The SteelDrivers. Jay opened up YouTube and played me a video of The SteelDrivers singing together in a little bar, and the sound, even coming through the YouTube video was like, man, you know, you got chills.

So Chris was another guy I wanted to track down and make a record with. I did run into him one time at a guitar shop, and it was just me and him, and I was like, "Are you Chris Stapleton?" and he said, "Yeah," and I was like, "Cool, see you later." I didn't know what to say to him after that.

I've never met him, but I hear he's kind of quiet.

He's a sweetheart. He's just quiet. Anyway, a while later I guess I got a phone call from his manager, and she said Chris wanted to meet me. He had heard Sturgill's record and just wanted to hang out. So we got together and we just hit it off immediately. We have a lot of the same vices. Guitars and cars and stuff like that. We did a couple of songs and the label [Universal Music Group Nashville] allowed us to go in the studio and make six tracks. In the time we had to mix six tracks, we'd already made the whole record, and it was just all fire. Again it was another situation like Metamodern — friends hanging out. It was not work. It was absolute pleasure. We'd go into the studio at noon and just order food, drink a little bit, talk, just completely wasted the whole day. We were professional hanger-outers. That's the word. So, we just literally hung out all day and we'd start recording at eight or nine at night and we'd do three songs. They were mixed, too — Vance Powell was the engineer and he's incredible so we didn't have to worry about that end of it. We were in the live room at RCA Studio A, which is a real magical place. We're just playing and we're getting masters. All the vocals are live. I mean, his wife, too, Morgane, who sings with him, is just insane.

She is amazing. I'm waiting for that record.

We just did the first song.

Aw, yay!

She's incredible.

The artists we're discussing — Jason, Sturgill, Chris — are often lumped together now, in a positive way — signifying where country could be going.

The thing that makes any of those records country are the voices, you know. So that's just how it comes out, but I don't think the music is necessarily projected as country, if that makes any sense. It's a culmination of everything they've grown up around, and maybe environment influences that stuff, and maybe that filters in subliminally, but there was no calculating any of that.

Anderson East is similar, in a soul vein. He's a white guy who started out as a singer-songwriter, but he's from Athens, Alabama, and how he's evolving feels very appropriate.

I probably liken him more to Van Morrison than anybody. Van Morrison had these beautiful songs and he was a great soul singer at the same time, but it wasn't necessarily soul records. I don't think it has any limits or labels.

Anderson's so comfortable. When I first met him he was just with an acoustic guitar singing and now he's up there with no guitar and he's jumping around on stage and winding up crowds. He's become a frontman.

You're at the center of one kind of movement in Nashville music. What do you think of the other side of the coin: artists like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett, who are connecting country with contemporary urban music?

It makes perfect sense. I mean, I grew up in the South and you would hear somebody blasting Travis Tritt and then you would hear them blasting Snoop Dogg. The same people listen to both music, and always have since hip-hop has come up. Rap has really become mainstream. Southerners loved it and embraced it. So I can see why that works.

Do you feel like you're becoming a Nashville insider?

I think I've always been out of it to be honest with you. Lately is the first time where I've kind of seen a little bit of it [the mainstream country world], and everybody has been really welcoming. It's the exact opposite of how I'd pictured it in my head. I always felt like I was this red-headed step child — I would go take a meeting with a label here in Nashville, and I'd look up behind the desk of whoever the A&R person was and I'd see these great Merle Haggard records or the perfect Waylon record. You see all this cool stuff... and then they would play you something that was pretty far away from that. But I feel like now that this music can be successful that a lot of people with really great taste are in power and they're saying, wow, this will sell, and we love this. I feel like maybe we're sneaking in through the back door, and people are being supportive, and I'm happy about it.

What's boring to me is the fight I see going on among critics and other tastemakers about what's authentic in country, or what's "good." Who cares if one is somehow more virtuous than the other? That's not the point.

There is no fight. That's why it's art. How do you say, in painting, that Expressionism is more valid than Surrealism or whatever? How can you say any of it is more valid? It's just different. I think it's the dumbest argument ever, trying to fight over what's real. You know what? When Creed made its big record in the '90s, those guys thought they were making Sgt. Pepper. Seriously. I don't like that band, I'm not a fan of their music. But I will say that that music meant something to their fans, that meant something to them. So that's why all art is valid. I mean, you've got to have a little bit of everything; otherwise it'd be a really boring salad bar.

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/ Laura E. Partain for NPR
Laura E. Partain for NPR

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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