Brent Cobb is answering a mundane question about being nominated for a Grammy when, all of a sudden, he finds a way to steer the question back to his favorite topic: South Georgia.
"When I think about the Grammys, I think about what me and my old group of friends would have thought about it," says Cobb, the 31-year-old singer who still approaches his everyday life as though he's never left his hometown of Ellaville, Georgia, despite having moved away more than 10 years ago.
"I just feel like the 17-year-old me and my buddies would have probably been like, 'Grammys, huh?'" Cobb, who speaks in a slow drawl, now puts on a thick, affected Southern accent: "Oh yeah, we go to Grammys every Sunday and eat fried chicken after church."
With that recent Grammy nomination under his belt and a brand new album, Providence Canyon, Cobb, like Chris Stapleton before him, is poised to become the latest country singer to stand out in the blurry mid-space between Americana and mainstream country.
But in this moment, even while seated in the swanky New York City offices of his parent label, Atlantic Records, Cobb remains fixated on South Georgia. Ask the singer anything, really, and there's a decent chance the conversation will end up winding back to Cobb’s native home.
The namesake of his excellent new album? That comes from Providence Canyon State Park in Lumpkin, Georgia, about 45 minutes from Ellaville. The reason Cobb sings several new songs in a newly rhythmic, almost spoken-word cadence? Cobb says he was simply trying to mimic the musical style that he hears in the way his relatives speak. Specific reference points that Cobb had in mind while making his latest record? Primarily country singer Larry Jon Wilson, born and raised a few hours east in Swainsboro, Georgia.
The swampy, bluesy roots music of Wilson, Tony Joe White, and Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark provided the template for Providence Canyon. Cobb was looking for a tougher, more lowdown sound (he and his manager came up with the goofy term "Southern-icana") after the peaceful, folksy storytelling of his 2016 breakthrough Shine on Rainy Day.
"There was a lot of stuff in the Sixties and Seventies that lent itself to Southern-icana," says Cobb. "It seemed like everything sounded a little more rural, maybe because of the way people grew up. Everybody grew up harder back then. Playing music in rural areas, everybody's always just trying to mimic their surroundings and their environment."
With songs indebted to Southern rock and blues, Providence Canyon, Cobb's second major-label release, is the singer-songwriter's attempt at showing off a different side of his Georgia-bred musical roots. Up-tempo country-funk songs like "Ain't a Road Too Long" and "Mornin's Gonna Come" set the tone. Cobb settled on a louder, raucous sound more fitting for the live stage after spending much of last year touring arenas and amphitheaters as Chris Stapleton's opening act.
"Being on that big of a stage," says Cobb, "I thought, 'Man, I gotta bring the funk, some kind of energy.'"
Cobb headed to the studio once again with his cousin, in-demand country-roots producer Dave Cobb. "Dave and I have been trying since 2006 to make a country funk album," he says. "I don't know if we achieved it yet, but it was a lot of fun trying to make it happen."
Interspersed, however, with Cobb's more party-friendly roadhouse material are several meditative, laidback depictions of his all-encompassing yearning for home. Cobb says that those more contemplative numbers, which happen to be the oldest on the record, are also the type of songs that come most naturally to the singer.
Growing up in Ellaville, Cobb and his friends developed idiosyncratic musical tastes in high school. As a late teenager, they listened to everything from Shooter Jennings to Cross Canadian Ragweed to the underground rapper Lil Wyte.
After a short, unsuccessful stint in Los Angeles that left Cobb "spiritually freaked out," he moved to Nashville in 2008, where he soon signed a publishing contract with Carnival Music. For his first-ever co-write for Carnival, Cobb was paired with the Alabama songwriter Adam Hood. The first song the duo wrote together, "Go Outside and Dance," would end up getting recorded by the Eli Young Band.
"Lyrically, you would never think to say things the way you hear Brent say them, but when you hear him say it you know exactly what he’s talking about. That, to me, is a template for a hero," says Hood, who co-wrote several songs on Providence Canyon and has become one of Cobb's closest friends in the industry. "Darrell Scott was like that. John Hiatt was like that. There's a depth, and you can hear it in his words, his melodies, in his instrumentation. I don't know many people more brilliant than him."
A few years later, Cobb and Hood landed slots on Willie Nelson's 2011 Country Throwdown Tour. It was Cobb's first large-scale tour, and he indulged fully, an experience that he recounts on the homesick lullaby "Come Home Soon," one of the most introspective songs on Providence Canyon.
"I was just drinking too much and staying out too late and acting foolish," says Cobb. "That whole part about hugging a telephone pole? It’s so real."
Cobb is talking about the song's second verse, a based-on-a-true-story depiction of drunken debauchery that quickly veers into a portrait of lonely isolation.
Last night I drank until I passed out
In the middle of a crowd of folks I didn’t know
And I heard them laughing at me lying there
Face down in the dirt hugging a telephone pole
"If I drink too much I'm not actually passed out, I just have to put my head down but I'm still wide awake. That's what was happening in that scene. The worst part about it is I was able to include it on this album so maybe not much has changed since I was 25," Cobb jokes. "But really, the song is just a soulful, spiritual longing for home."
A soulful, spiritual longing for home is also an apt description for the opening title track, if not the entirety of Providence Canyon.
"I was thinking about the actual Providence Canyon, that's how that started. We used to go down there and hang out. But then I looked up the definition of 'providence,' it's something like 'the protective care of god or nature as a spiritual power or being,'" says Cobb, who has, it turns out, memorized verbatim the dictionary definition of the word.
"Man, that definition just lit that whole song on fire because, thinking about going to the canyon, that's exactly what it felt like – like you could do anything. That idea of providence inspired the whole record: the idea of a safe haven. A sacred something."
The new song ".30-06" is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Rather than a safe space, it conveys a threat and is based on a personal tale that can also be traced back to Georgia. In the lyrics, the narrator threatens a stranger who is "crossing the line" with the narrator's wife. "You're gonna get fixed with a thirty-aught-six," Cobb sings.
"I won't get into the specific story, but I'm gone a lot from home, and when I'm gone, you’ll have these people that are like, 'I need to go by and check on my wife, I’ll go take care of her,' that sort of thing. There's nothing wrong with being hit on, that’s all fine, and I expect that to happen. But this one dude who I don't really know…he just kept on, he was just an asshole."
In today's climate, Cobb says, he's hesitant to perform what he hopes is a "light-hearted" gun song onstage each night. But for the most part, the song simply comes across as yet another anecdote from home.
After many long years of yearning, Cobb and his family finally moved back to the region last year. They currently live, believe it or not, in the unincorporated town of Cobb, Georgia, just a little more than a half hour from Ellaville. Twelve years after leaving, Cobb has finally found his way back home.
Last year, he told an interviewer that songwriters "tend to talk about whatever they miss the most." That's certainly been the case for Cobb, who has spent the past dozen years writing his way back.
Now that he's finally made it home, the question remains: What is Brent Cobb possibly going to write about?
"I wonder the same thing," he says. "I can’t wait to figure it out."