Many of country music’s biggest stories of the 2010s wouldn’t have happened without Dave Cobb.
It seems silly to have to point that out; after all, it’s not like Cobb hasn’t received his due credit as a producer, and to be fair, it’s not like Cobb was the sole influence of country music’s change of direction this past decade. Still, it’s a matter of due diligence to reminisce on breakthrough albums like Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and plenty of others.
When analyzing the general scope, however, Cobb’s influence scans as a familiar tale for the genre: a trend in Nashville becomes incredibly played-out before something else catches on. For independent country music, the Internet age has allowed it to compete with mainstream country music, albeit not to the same degree in every instance. Still, its growth certainly can’t be – and hasn’t been – ignored. And while it’s the names at the forefront that we’ll remember most as the years pass by, Cobb’s clout helped inspire one of the most daring concept albums of the 2010s with Southern Family.
Not to begin a new paragraph with the same cliché as the last one, but Southern Family, more or less, was born from the same energy that fostered the creative outlaw movement of the 1970s. That’s more than just an opinion, however; Cobb took influence from White Mansions, a 1978 concept album about the story of the Civil War from the South’s point-of-view. Written by singer/songwriter Paul Kennerley, White Mansions was captured at the height of the outlaw movement, featuring contributions from Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, John Dillon, Steve Cash and even Eric Clapton, and was unafraid to explore the deeper roots of the aforementioned conflict and the deep scars left on American history.
Southern Family, admittedly, isn’t as adventurous as that project, though for 2016, it brought together some of the biggest names in independent and mainstream country music: John Paul White, Jason Isbell and Brandy Clark aren’t afraid to enter dark, bleak territory with equally compelling performances; Holly Williams and Jamey Johnson provide hard-bitten, straight-laced stories drenched in lessons learned; Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown provide a lighter touch of optimism; and Brent Cobb, Anderson East and Shooter Jennings help add the smallest bits of levity to an otherwise heavy project.
What should be the most damning element of Southern Family is a lack of consistency; all artists, with the exception of Chris and Morgane Stapleton and Zac Brown, penned their own contributions here, meaning the stamps of their usual work are on full display. In that case, it’s nearly impossible to make a concept album out of this, but like the gathering of the artists here, Southern Family is about the rugged journey of life itself and those who help us on that journey; a thematic undercurrent, rather than a thematic arc, in other words. The first words spoken by John Paul White on the opening track are, “you’re gonna die,” as he lets someone he cares about go on to … well, wherever we go. It’s a sobering perspective to start off the album, but also helps to strengthen the familial ties the artists sing about here.
Granted, not every track is meant to necessarily hit that dark of a note to expand upon White’s statement, but the execution doesn’t much differ from what you’d expect, given the talent on display. Jason Isbell provides his usual poetic wit by bringing faith into the conversation of life and death, looking at God more on the same level as him, saving those who want to be saved, rather than everyone possible. With the addition of family comes inevitable loss, and though, again, the album doesn’t follow White’s opening grief in a straight line throughout, these characters often resort to those memories and lessons learned to simply move on with an appreciation for life, in spite of its harshness. Zac Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden” and Miranda Lambert’s “Sweet By And By” may be imbued with corny optimism, but they’re lighter moments meant to reinforce that arc. Of course, Brent Cobb’s “Down Home” and Shooter Jennings’ “Can You Come Over?” also aren’t lyrical highlights, but when it comes to an album like this, providing that lighter balance is essential. After all, whereas White and Brandy Clark provide the heaviest moments here with their respective tracks, there’s also tracks that fall somewhere in the middle. Jamey Johnson looks on fondly at his mother’s kitchen table that houses heartwarming memories for him, but it also comes with an observation of how much time has wore that table – and himself – down; it’s a kind of fondness that includes enough self-awareness to know it was a different time, and detailing a moment in time is certainly what this album does best. And then it ends with “The Way Home,” which intentionally doesn’t offer much beyond the notion that the people who influenced those characters have faded away … and that’s alright. The joy of having a story to tell usually comes with something painful to go with it, after all.
Like with the lyrical narratives, too, Southern Family finds all artists comfortable within their respective wheelhouses. Cobb’s weathered production style is certainly on display, but on album that’s meant to recall those days gone by, it only adds to the experience. “God Is A Working Man” cuts through with the same warmth the 400 Unit are known for providing; “Simple Song” has a restrained warmth and swell of strings to allow John Paul White to deliver what his easily his best vocal performance to date; There’s not much in the way of Brandy Clark and “I Cried” other than that beautifully sparse piano (ironically, too, it’s not the only time Clark reflected on death in 2016); and whatever lyrical tightness Brent Cobb and Shooter Jennings lack in their respective tracks they more than make up for in sultry, genuinely compelling blues-inspired grooves for that southern flair. Then, of course, there’s Morgane and Chris Stapleton’s take on “You Are My Sunshine,” which not only opts for the full version of the song, but also adopts darker, swampier minor chords and elongates the grooves for several fantastic solos.
And there’s really not a moment that goes awry in any capacity, aside from failing to credit the Settles Connection Choir on “The Way Home.” Every track here may not be on equal footing with one another, but they all effectively serve their own purposes in the listening experience, in more ways than one. Southern in perspective, yet seeped in an all-inclusive narrative of the importance of family, Southern Family, in a larger sense, follows its own narrative quite well; the talent brought on display is not wasted, and by cultivating these 12 songs into one surprisingly cohesive project, Cobb certainly produced one hell of a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, it’s not Cobb’s biggest achievement of the 2010s, but it’s arguably his best.