By Kevin Broughton
Brent Cobb is an old soul. He’s wise and even-keeled like you’d expect a man twice his 30 years to be. Heck, he sounds old on the phone; his conversational tone matches up with a grizzled roughneck, not the soothing troubadour on Shine On Rainy Day. Critical acclaim poured forth upon the album’s October release, and it finished at a heady No. 4 in the FTM critic’s poll – ahem – no small feat. Our intrepid publisher described perfectly it as “a slow drive down a gravel road on the outskirts of your hometown, with nary a bro in sight.”
And therein lies the irony. Or paradox. Whatever, the bro issue is inescapable in a discussion of Cobb’s musical journey, and it’s evident that the dichotomy puzzles the man himself. Because this guy – who hasn’t needed a day job outside of music for 10 years – has written plenty of songs that bros and their producers have fattened their wallets on. And while Cobb would never say it, the bros and their auto-tuning technicians commit aggravated musical assault on his art, dumbing it down in the pursuit of (a) filthy lucre; and (b) the approval of millions of 80-IQ drones.
Oh, his frustration occasionally bubbles up, but in an understated way in keeping with his gentle temperament. Except that one time two years ago when he went into the studio to vent; that’s when “Yo, Bro” caught the ear of notable outlets like Rolling Stone. (Though, by the way, Cobb sent it to FTM first.) The magazine was one of many platforms to make the obvious comparison of his parody song to the work of one of the reigning bros, who happened to be a friend of Cobb’s. It picked up steam to the point the artist felt compelled to preemptively reach out to the pop star in question. “He asked me,” Cobb said, “whether I was making fun of bros, or if it was something I wanted him to record.”
It’s a stretch to say Cobb has a foot in both camps. It’s indisputable, though, that there’s some overlap because of his personal and professional relationships. It gives him a unique perspective into the critical/commercial contrast, and you won’t find anyone with Cobb’s artistic integrity who has such a realistic window into the tragic dumbing down of country music.
When Jody Rosen coined the term “bro country” three and a half years ago, it cut deep with the thin-skinned millionaires whose songs are confined to beer, trucks and heavy petting with loose women. Jason Aldean – who stares at the orange juice can because it says concentrate – remarked, “It bothers me because I don’t think it’s a compliment.”
“You have no idea,” Cobb says, “how personally they take it. You wouldn’t think it would bother them too bad, since all they have to do is go to the mailbox and pick up a check. I don’t know why it bothers them so much, but it does.”
Brent Cobb may never sleep in piles of money; he’ll also never have to worry about the respect of his peers.
On a Sunday in December, Cobb took a break from singing the Frozen soundtrack with his little girl to talk about songwriting. And the music business. And having a cousin who churns out Grammys for the guys program directors ignore. The “bro” thing may have come up, too.
I’d like to start with a question about tradecraft. For a while you made a living writing songs for other people. Is there a different mindset for writing a song for somebody else? I would imagine you attack it differently, for instance, when the goal is to get a song on mainstream radio.
Well, I got lucky, really. I’m with a great publishing company, Carnival Music, that’s always supported people and let them be their own artists and writers. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. There are a lot of places in town, where you go in and it’s a nine-to-five, and you have to try to write hits and that sort of thing. I’ve never had any of that kind of pressure. And for some reason I’ve gotten lucky enough; the songs I’ve written I’ve always done for myself. And I’ve been fortunate that there have been folks to record them.
About six months before the release of Shine on Rainy Day, there was the compilation from your cousin Dave Cobb, Southern Family. Your song on it, “Down Home,” seems like a preview for the album. Was that a song you’d been working on for a while? Put another way, if Dave hadn’t done the compilation, would that have been the eleventh song on Shine On?
I’m sure it would’ve been, man. It’s funny. I had gotten started on that song and had maybe a half a verse or a full verse. When Dave gave me a call [about the compilation] I knew it would be a perfect fit. But it’s definitely a Sunday in the life of my Southern family. And on my album there’s definitely a lot of that, so yeah, no doubt it would’ve been the eleventh track.
It looks like y’all had a lot of fun recording that one.
Oh, yeah. It was definitely good to get back in the studio with Dave; it had been about 10 years since I’d done that with him. So it was a blast. I’ve said this before, but he kinda produces the way I write. There’s a lot of spur-of-the moment stuff, and if he says, “something doesn’t feel right,” he means from his heart, not technically. And that’s the way I’ve always approached writing songs.
You met your cousin Dave, I believe, when you were about 16. He was an established producer then, but not the big name his is now in the industry. He’s kind of a big deal….
That’s what I’m saying!
…How big an asset is it to have a producer who’s not just blood kin, but the hottest hand in Nashville right now?
Ah, that’s gonna be pretty beneficial. It’s definitely helped me out a lot. When we first met I was 17, and he had produced Put the O Back in Country by Shooter [Jennings], which was one of my favorite records at that time and is still one of my favorites.
And it was funny, man. When I moved up here [Nashville]… well, actually, I moved to L.A. for a minute. I lived in the middle of Hollywood for about four months and went back and forth for about a year and a half. Then I moved back to Georgia, then back to Nashville in March of ’08. And I was looking around trying to find a publishing deal and learning about being a staff writer. And the first thing everybody asks is, “Are you a songwriter or an artist?”
So I would always say, “I thought they were one and the same.” And they said, “Well, we’ve gotta get you a producer.” And I told everybody the same thing, for eight years: I’ve got a cousin who’s a producer, and he’s badass. But folks were a little scared to invest money in someone who’s somebody’s cousin who happens to be a producer. And I didn’t have the money and Dave didn’t have the money, so we sorta did what we had to do there for a second. But now a lot of those naysayers are red in the face, I believe. [Laughs.]
Around the time Something More than Free came out, Jason Isbell talked about the collaborative way he and Dave worked in the studio. Your cousin, he said, had a real knack for knowing where to place a bridge, for example, or whether to start a song with a chorus or a verse. Did you experience a similar chemistry in the studio?
Yeah. Well, definitely on my first album, Dave would structurally set up songs. I was 17 at the time. And there’s still a lot of that because he’s just got such a great instinct for… well, I might think a song is incomplete and he might say, “I think it’s done; let’s just put this little melodic thing at the end.” He’s just fantastic, and that’s why everybody loves him, because he thinks like an artist. Well, he is an artist, not just someone who can afford a bunch of equipment and calls himself a producer.
I imagine he’s as valuable – if not more so – than any great session man.
Yeah! And going back to the staff-writing thing, I approach that the same way Dave does: It’s a collaboration that comes down to “What’s best for the song?”
How long had you been working on this batch of songs? Did you do any writing while in the studio?
Some of them longer than others. Like I said, I’ve always written for myself, so I’ve always had a deep pocketful of songs that kinda lent themselves to this album. But some of them I finished up in the studio in the moment; I might have a melody in mind and I’d say, “What do you think about this one, Dave?” So, a little bit of both.
There’s an uplifting air to this album of yours. There’s sort of a demarcation point, I think, between the first seven and last three songs, but for the most part there’s kind of a contentment running through it. Is this a reflection of your personality and general outlook on life?
I think it has to be. I come from a very musical family, a positive family, a loving family. For me, it’s been a long decade professionally in music and I’ve seen some people come behind me and excel and surpass me. But I’m still rockin’, professionally. I’ve been able to make a living from just music for almost a decade. So I’ve gotta be positive.
The other thing I wanted to show, you know…I’m friends with everybody on both sides of the fence; I can’t really pick a side because I’ve got so many friends on both sides of this invisible wall. My thing is, I wanted to do country music in such a way that just because you’re going beyond scratching the surface and doing something a little deeper, it doesn’t have to be depressing. You can write something that feels good and also has a little more meaning to it, a little more depth.
So that was always in the back of my mind while I was putting this album together. And also – having a two-year-old – I wanted to put something out where if I never did anything else, my daughter could listen to it and say, “Man, that was my daddy’s album!”
|From Brent Cobb's Instagram
You'd easily fit into the mainstream country neo-traditional revival (artists like Stapleton, William Michael Morgan, Jon Pardi). You've seemingly gone the more straight-Americana/less-commercial route. Was that a business decision, or just staying true to your style and comfort level?
Yeah, it’s just the way I write. If you go the traditional or commercial route, there’s just so many people who have to get involved, and that wouldn’t have been a good representation of what I do. This album is just natural.
And, speaking of the commercial route, let’s talk about an elephant in the room. There are several folks in the “mainstream” camp who’ve recorded your songs. You wrote “Tailgate Blues” and Luke Bryan had a hit with it. (editor’s note: was a popular album cut) It might be hard for folks to reconcile the songs on Shine on Rainy Day with that one. Was that a case of “well, that’s just what the music-listening public wants, so give it to them?”
No, that song was originally written for me. I had a verse or two, and it was originally called “Mossy Blues.” And I would ask people to go and listen to the lyrics of that song * before they made any judgments like, “Oh, he wrote that song for Luke Bryan.” Because – and I don’t really want to be the one to say it – if they listen to it, it’s structurally different. There are some of the same phrasings, but we’re from the same area. But I think you can tell the differences in depth.
And my co-writer, Neil Medley – it was one of the first songs I’d had a co-writer for, and this was about five years ago – he’s the one who said “Let’s call it ‘Tailgate Blues.’”
Well, that was certainly some foresight, right there.
[Laughs]. Isn’t that funny, man? And look, I’m not saying we were the first ones to write about a buzz, or write about a tailgate or crickets and stuff, because we damn sure were not. But during that time period not a lot of people were saying that stuff. And then, about a year or so after that…[laughs].
What’s more likely to happen: Brent Cobb writing another song about a truck, or Luke Bryan covering “Down in the Gulley?”
Luke would do Down in the Gulley.
Yeah, but would you want him to? Wait. You don’t have to answer that.
Of course I would! I want everybody to do whatever they want to do. Wouldn’t it be cool to hear Luke do Down in the Gully? That would probably change everything.
Well, it would help your bottom line, no doubt… So, you apparently dipped your toe into satire and wrote something called “Yo, Bro.”
[Laughs] Aw, I should’ve sent that to you.
I’d love to hear it, but I can’t, since all traces of it have disappeared from the Internet. Can you clear up this mystery?
Ah, well…For about four or five years, I averaged doing about 120 dates a year, and when we found out we were having our baby, I decided I’d leave the road and just focus on songwriting. And during that time, it was at the height, the peak really, of the bro country movement, and I couldn’t get anybody to listen to any of my songs.
So I got kinda pissed off. And what happened…I won’t say any names, but I had a couple folks who are kinda high up – Luke WAS NOT one of them – a couple folks in that camp told me, “Man if you could just write some stuff that leaned that way, you could probably have a lot of success.” And it really bothered me because it ain’t that I can’t do that; I just don’t do that.
I decided to write something that was that style of song, and I wanted to do it better than they can write their own style of song. [Pauses] Against them. As a matter of fact, Neil Medley – the same guy who co-wrote “Tailgate” – that’s who I wrote “Yo, Bro” with. And it worked.** [Laughs] It did a lot of what I thought it would do; I figured it would go over a lot of the bro fans’ heads…
That’s not a very high bar, Brent…
And later they were like, “Wait, I think he’s making fun of us, but it doesn’t matter because it sounds so cool.” What I didn’t expect to happen was that a lot of the more traditional fans – I expected them to get the joke – but it kinda backfired on me and said, “Aw, he’s a bro hatin’ on bros.”
[Howls with laughter]…
Yeah, that’s what happened. So, I pulled it off the Internet. Someday I’ll put it back out there, but I took it off before I put this record out because I didn’t want people to be confused and not get the joke. Luckily we’ve got folks like [Trailer] and ole Trigger (Saving Country Music) who do get the joke. But a lot of folks didn’t, so I just didn’t want to deal with that.
Back to Southern Family for a second: It’s become a cliché, what with the mainstream country bros checking all the boxes (trucks, dirt roads, etc.) to show they’re authentically rural on all their songs. On “Down Home,” you touch all the bases yourself, yet it’s valid on its face. Did you write that song as sort of an ironic wink at the bro template?
Nah, I didn’t really think of it that way. The thing is, I’m friends with some of those guys. There was one time we were sitting around in the writing room writing a song, and I had this really cool idea. Where I grew up my grandpa had a junkyard. He had a hundred acres that my great-grandpa bought for a dollar an acre after World War I, and on one part of it was this junkyard.
So I had this idea about how things rust away in a junkyard, but it can still be beautiful; a really rural song, you know? So this one guy – and man this is one of the top dudes, and again I’m not gonna say any names. He says, “Well, does that pass the Bubba test?” I asked him what the “Bubba test” was. “As in Bubba back home; is he gonna get it?”
It bothered me so much. And I was a young buck, just a low man on the [Nashville] totem pole. I told the guy, “Well, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to write anything together. Ever.” And I just got up and walked out. Who knows; maybe if I hadn’t walked out I could’ve had a bunch of bro hits. [Laughs] But it just bothers me, man. It’s an epidemic, and what I don’t understand is, those guys are from there (the rural South.) They know that things are deeper. I don’t know whose fault it is, whether it’s the fans of that music; I don’t know if it’s the record labels, or the radio, or if it’s just people getting there and selling where they’re from short. I don’t know whose problem it is. But it’s unfortunate, because it’s much richer, where we’re all from.
Yeah. As a lifelong Southerner, it chaps me when in the movies, for example, every Southerner is gonna be a dumb yokel…
…and these guys, they’re reinforcing that stereotype and lining their pockets. And now they’ve added an element of soft-core porn to it, singing about trying to get in some skank’s pants…
…and it’s not healthy.
You know, I hate to name-drop because I know these guys and they’re all heroes of mine. But my wife and I were talking about this the other day. Guys like Kristofferson and Willie, when they talked about a woman, it was so romantic. They did it in a way that was just beautiful, man. You can still do that, dammit. It’s the same way with movies, too. I love the movie Dazed and Confused; it’s funny because it’s real-life, not over the top. What’s happening in all genres of music, not just country, is that it’s over the top and exploitative of whatever the truth is.
Lastly, are you doing any new writing, or is that something that’s perpetual for you? And have you thought about what you might do for your next album?
I have thought about it and I’m really excited about doing the next album. It won’t stray too far from where I am already, though.
Cobb will play a few dates late this month in the U.K., then come home for an extensive tour with Nikki Lane in February. Catch him when you can.
* Seriously, go listen. He’s right, and it’s a great song. When sung by Brent Cobb, of course.
** Oh, man, does it ever work. Since the interview, your humble correspondent received a copy from the artist on the condition of not circulating it. It is brilliant.