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Producer Dave Cobb Talks Working With Chris Stapleton & Country's 'Tipping Point'
For several years, Dave Cobb has been leading a country music insurrection. As a producer on a series of critically acclaimed records—Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, both Sturgill Simpson albums, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and most recently, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller—he has articulated a consistent vision of country with strong echoes of the ‘70s, a vibrant, slapdash sound, and weary, resonant lead vocals. His projects offer a beacon of hope for purists upset with the genre’s current interest in top 40-friendly modernization.
Until recently, most of Cobb’s work was on the fringes of country. (There were occasional exceptions: he produced A Thousand Horses’ Southernality, which spawned a No. 1 hit on the Airplay chart this year.) That changed at the CMA Awards earlier this month, when Chris Stapleton won Album Of The Year, beating out big-name acts with radio presence like Little Big Town and Jason Aldean. Cobb took the stage alongside Stapleton; both men appeared visibly taken aback by their unexpected recognition on national television.
Cobb did not start out wanting to produce -- or even play country music. In the ‘90s, he spent time as a session musician in Atlanta, at one point jumping into the studio with Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri, who crafted some of that decade’s finest R&B. Cobb then joined The Tender Idols, a strummy rock band that was often associated with the Brit-pop explosion. The group’s best album, Distressor, was defined by the light, clear singing of frontman Ian Webber -- who actually is English -- golden pools of backing vocals, and guitars that split the difference between the Beatles’ jangle and Led Zeppelin’s stomp.
But the Idols got stuck in what Cobb calls “a bad record deal,” and around the same time, he started to realize that “the studio was always my favorite part of making records.” His love of rock led him to leave Atlanta for Los Angeles, where a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Shooter Jennings with the prompt: “you’re from the south, he’s from the south -- you guys would get along.”
Shooter isn’t just from the south; he’s the son of the legendary country singer -- and former Buddy Holly bassist -- Waylon Jennings. But this impressive pedigree was not the basis for Cobb and Jenning’s initial bond; instead, they found common ground in a shared love of rock bands like Nine Inch Nails. “Even though Reznor’s records are created with machines, they are really human,” Cobb enthuses. “He takes a left turn when you’re supposed to take a right. I think he’s one of the first guys to really abuse digital sounds too. Those guitar sounds on the first couple of records are unbelievable.”
The type of music Cobb and Jennings ended up making was nothing like Reznor’s. “We talked about Ministry, Skinny Puppy, and Nine Inch Nails, then we made a country record,” the producer says with a laugh. “I don’t know what happened.” “4th Of July,” the lead single from the Put The O Back In Country, landed on the country charts.
Jennings was partially responsible for Cobb’s country music education, although he also caught the bug and filled in a lot of gaps himself. But his in-studio heroes are still mostly rockers: Glyn Johns (Led Zeppelin, the Who), Geoff Emerick (the Beatles), George Martin (the Beatles), Mickie Most (Herman’s Hermits, the Animals), and Brendan O’Brien (Matthew Sweet, Rage Against The Machine). Cobb and Jason Isbell used Roy Halee’s production on Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as a reference point for Southeastern.
Cobb especially admires Jimmy Miller’s work with the Rolling Stones on albums like Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street. “He’s one of my top five all time heroes,” Cobb explains. “Miller would go in there and play percussion with the band and get that swagger. The Stones, when they had Jimmy Miller, they had the ultimate swagger. I steal a lot of his tricks.”
The producer has his own ways to create swagger in the studio. Corb Lund, who worked with Cobb on his recently released Things That Can’t Be Undone, recalls that Cobb “requested that the band not know the songs [ahead of time] so that it would be more off the cuff.” He is “really spontaneous, really fearless,” Lund continues. “And really old-school sonically. We recorded the whole [album] in one room, vocals are live, few overdubs, lots of mic-bleed. He’s into reality -- he doesn’t care about every little wart.”
Isbell echoes Lund’s comments: “One thing he does that I was not used to: he keeps a lot of live vocals.” “For me it’s a terrifying thing,” Isbell adds. “I’m used to recording all the music and using a pilot vocal, and then going back over the course of two or three days and singing everything until it sounds perfect. Dave really showed me that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the accuracy of that and the accuracy of earlier takes with the full band. But there is a lot of difference between the emotional content.”
“Emotion” and “feeling” come up a lot when people talk about working with Cobb. “Gear is great, and I’m infatuated with gear,” he notes. “But that’s not what makes a great record. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had is rolling into somebody’s house with a laptop and making a record.” Several songs from Southeastern came together in Cobb’s dining room, which Isbell describes as one of those “dining rooms that makes your family sound happier than they are.”
For Cobb, part of fostering the ideal recording atmosphere is getting into it with the band, just as Miller did. “I play on almost every record [I produce],” Cobb continues. “It feels like you’re one with the artist instead of feeling adversarial. It’s a really weird concept when you have the producer in a control room really far away and the band is in the other room, and you just hear someone come on after the take and say, ‘do it again.’”
His instinctual tactics include the amount of time it takes to make an album. Michael Hobby, frontman of A Thousand Horses, says there’s not much tinkering involved. “Once you have it, you have it. When we made that first EP with him [2010’s A Thousand Horses], we made it in five days.” “The Beatles’ first album was made in a day,” Cobb points out. “Why do we have to take three months to make an album? I think with making records, after about three weeks everyone is kind of over it. I welcome the return of eight song records.” (Brian Eno, who produced classic albums for David Bowie and the Talking Heads, once similarly “wish[ed] nearly all records were shorter.”)
The musicians Cobb has worked with are impressively loyal to their producer, painting him as a sort of rock and roll guardian angel. Cobb recorded both Anderson East (who released Delilah this year on Cobb's new Elektra imprint, Low Country Sound) and Hobby despite the fact that the two were broke. East cleaned the studio in an attempt to return the favor; he also “rented a concrete grinder and resurfaced the whole downstairs part of his basement.” Hobby tells a similar tale. “We’d help [Cobb] move studios; our guitar player laid tile at his studio. We did whatever it took.”
Cobb’s support extends beyond technical services; he also provides psychological aid. “He came along at a time when I needed encouragement,” East says. “He was like, ‘you’re on to something, just keep doing it.’ Good cheerleader.” Lindi Ortega, who worked with Cobb on Tin Star (2013) and three songs from this year’s Faded Gloryville, shares a comparable story. “I kind of shied away from wanting to play guitar on a track because Dave is such a good guitar player,” she remembers. “He was like, ‘you should absolutely play’ -- he gave me the confidence. He convinced me that I had a way of playing it that he didn’t think he could emulate.”
Refreshingly, Cobb's cheerleading is not limited strictly to country’s traditional wing, despite his close association with it. A Thousand Horses is a commercial band signed to a major label with a No. 1 hit. Cobb flew to Stockholm recently to record with the Swedish group Europe, famous for the 1986 hit “The Final Countdown.” One of his dream collaborators is Sheryl Crow. “I think she’s awesome,” he declares. “I think she was a genre defining artist in the ‘90s.”
At the same time, the continuing success of Cobb’s productions are making country traditionalism less of a niche. “I think it’s right at this tipping point,” he says of the genre. “I feel like it’s wide open.” Sure enough, Chris Stapleton is suddenly a mainstream artist: with the help of Justin Timberlake’s co-sign on national television, the singer/songwriter earned a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 and a No. 1 hit on the Hot Country songs chart.
For Lund, the eventual success of Cobb’s productions was inevitable. “People want to hear grit,” he says. “People like dirt. It’s human.” The Thousand Horses’ singer explains it differently. “He’s just always kept his head down, done his own thing,” Hobby says. “Fuck the politics: make records.”