Dave Cobb Talks Spontaneous Producing Style, Studio A and His All-Star Concept Album
The Grammy nominee for producer of the year has his own label and will take over Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A.
It’s a pretty good time to be Dave Cobb.
A current Grammy nominee for producer of the year, his Chris Stapleton project Traveller is up for album of the year and best country album, and the Cobb-produced Jason Isbell release Something More Than Free is nominated for best Americana album. Cobb was also onstage playing guitar for Stapleton’s career- altering Country Music Association Awards performance with Justin Timberlake on Nov. 4, 2015, and with the band again when Stapleton kicked ass on Jan. 16 on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
As if that’s not enough, Cobb’s preparing to release Southern Family on his own label, Low Country Sounds, with tracks from Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown and Jamey Johnson, among others, on March 18. And he’ll become the resident producer at Music Row’s historic RCA Studio A on April 1.
Cobb couldn’t have planned this part of his life much better if he tried — and it’s a good bet that he didn’t plan it, because he’s notorious for living in the moment. When he took part in a Leadership Music skit in 2015, he played a major role in providing the character for a fairly flimsy script, inspiring his other team members to ramp up their game. Most of his input came on the fly around a bar table on a Friday night. It’s the same attitude he brings to a recording studio.
“I try to make it feel like you’re 15 and rehearsing with your friends in your garage,” says Cobb. “It can be really boring if you paint by numbers with it. But we goof off, we hang out, we tell jokes, we order food and drinks and just enjoy ourselves. The way we [record] is completely off the floor, spontaneous, and it’s alive. It’s a living process. It’s not a strategically planned computer algorithm. It’s humans having fun together.”
A case in point is the Stapleton album. Recorded in roughly a week, mostly at Studio A, the sessions were informal affairs where they hung out during the day until the mood struck. And sometimes, recording didn’t even take place inside.
“The one day we didn’t have RCA A booked, we went to another studio,” recalls Stapleton. “Dave didn’t like how it was sounding inside, but he walked around the building outside, clapping his hands in a very nutty, Phil Spector kind of way: ‘Sounds great out here. We should record out here.’ So that’s what we did. Those kinds of things were going on the entire time.”
In similar fashion, when Cobb produced A Thousand Horses’ Southernality, he recorded one of Michael Hobby’s lead vocals in the front seat of a Ford Mustang, believing that the car would put the singer in the right mood for the storyline.
The sessions for that album included a lot of drinking and a loose approach that helped the band’s first single, “Smoke,” rise to No. 1 on Country Airplay.
“We kind of approached it as if we were playing the songs live in rehearsals,” says A Thousand Horses guitarist Bill Satcher.
Cobb’s career as a producer mixes the parts of the business he appreciates the most. Born in Savannah, Ga., he was part of a rock band, The Tender Idols, that got stuck in a recording deal that made them no money and allowed them no way out. He never particularly cared for touring anyway — “I really loved being home and sleeping in my own bed every night,” he explains — and Cobb decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue production. He piled up credits with Chris Cornell, Rival Sons and even the Oak Ridge Boys, but it was the Shooter Jennings album Put the ‘O’ Back in Country that made him start examining his Southern roots more seriously.
“When I left Atlanta, I thought I would never come back to this coast,” he says. “And it wasn’t running away from the South. I just wanted to see the world. And when I got out to California, being there for a long time, I remember one day in particular playing this Jason Isbell/Drive-By Truckers song ‘Outfit.’ The lyrics of that song just melted me, and I started getting homesick.”
Some production work with Jamey Johnson knit Cobb more closely to Nashville musicians, and he made the move to Music City in 2011. The community took particular notice when Isbell’s Cobb-produced Southeastern won Americana album of the year in 2014 and another production, Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, grabbed a 2015 nomination in the same category.
Whether he’s working on a project for the sound-sensitive Americana format or a hit-driven label like A Thousand Horses’ Republic Nashville, Cobb doesn’t change his approach.
“I don’t think I ever played a game or amended my personal tastes to any particular format,” he says.
That’s part of the charm in the Southern Family project. From the mainstream country approach of Lambert’s “Sweet By and By” to the Southern rock and gospel in Rich Robinson’s “The Way Home” to the blue-eyed soul of Anderson East’s “Learning,” there’s a realness in the tracks, derived no doubt from Cobb’s in-the-moment approach to recording. It’s a style borrowed from the vinyl era, when records were made primarily by a core group of musicians working together. In an era where technology allows people to work in isolation, Cobb’s process involves a sense of community, a quality he wants to see preserved. That ideal, of course, makes him a perfect fit for Studio A.
“I want to continue to capture that feel of people playing together and interacting together,” he says. “I think the past is the future on that.”
How Cobb’s future lays out isn’t exactly certain. But he didn’t get to this point with a lot of planning. It has been simply about finding artists he believes in and helping them to make their moments count.
“When people are really talented and have that magic to them, you don’t have to say a lot,” he reasons. “Your job is to capacitate them to feel like they’re in a space where they can be that person [they want to be], to create a great environment around them and be part of it.”