The four months that Brent Cobb spent living in wild and woolly Los Angeles when he was 21 may have well been four months on the moon for the rural Georgia native. It rained just once, the ground shook in an earthquake, he was nearly carjacked and he witnessed a drive-by shooting on his street.
But the capper was when the LAPD pulled him over – for spitting tobacco.
“It was me and my roommate’s brother, from Yankton, South Dakota. That dude is red,” says Cobb in his thick drawl. He’s seated not in some hip Nashville cocktail lounge, but in his favorite local sports bar, sipping a whiskey. “We were riding down Sunset in this old Cadillac, his grandpa’s car, and we didn’t have any cups with us [to spit in]. Back home, it’s not a big deal to pull up to a stoplight and spit. But they didn’t appreciate it. They thought we were hammered.”
In the end, the cops let them go on their way.
Quips Cobb, “You can’t arrest somebody just cause they’re disgusting.”
While Cobb may keep up an admittedly disgusting habit, the 30-year-old has written and recorded some of the most beautiful, clear-eyed material to come out of Nashville over these past 12 months. His excellent debut album Shine on Rainy Day, produced by his cousin Dave Cobb and released in October, is full of gentle, homespun tales of Southern life – particularly his own.
Songs like “South of Atlanta” and “Country Bound” celebrate the one-stoplight towns of Cobb’s youth, where drive-bys or earthquakes weren’t a concern. And even though his lyrics may reference “Old Glory” and a simpler Mayberry way of life, he never reaches for the low-hanging fruit of jingoism or false nostalgia. In that respect, he differs from some populist country artists, falling in line more with the singer-songwriter ideals of the Americana movement.
Cobb shakes his head, uncertain. He’s not sure exactly where he fits in, but since the release of Shine on Rainy Day, he sees his music connecting with fans of both genres. In fact, he says those who listen to radio country and those who favor more traditional country have more in common than even they realize, thanks in part to geography.
“All the people that are fans of Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and the mainstream, those people are from the same places that the fans of the Isbells, the Sturgills are from,” he says, nodding to Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, two artists whose records his cousin has produced. “And I’m from there too, so I think [my] music lends itself to both sides of that fence.”
Still, Cobb points out one key difference he’s observed.
“For some reason, a Luke Bryan fan or a Florida Georgia Line fan will be [more] open to listening to an Isbell record and liking it, than an Isbell fan will be to listen to Luke Bryan,” he says.
Chalk it up, perhaps, to the fact that mainstream country fans are more accepting of the progressive production techniques of pop music and other genres, while Americana stalwarts cling to that intangible “authenticity.”
“I’m going to let you say why,” says Cobb, refusing to elaborate. “I’m just glad for the response and the appreciation and the support of everyone on all sides. I don’t know if [my success] would have happened any other time than right now.”
He can thank his cousin for helping create the current climate, one where artists like Isbell, Simpson and Chris Stapleton can plant a flag in the musical landscape without relying solely upon radio.
“It’s nice to know that they don’t have to be the end-all, be-all, for the first time in a long time. And we all knew that was coming,” he says of the shift from radio to a more grassroots launching pad. “When I was a kid thinking of being a touring musician, I thought of it happening the way it is happening now.”
Which, for Cobb, is to say organically. After touring hard for four years, playing 100 dates each year with little traction, he called it quits, choosing to help his wife raise their first child and write songs.
“I didn’t even know what I was going to write about,” he says in his typically dry way.
Then his cousin Dave came calling. The producer, flush from the success of Stapleton’s Traveller album, among others, was putting together last year’s Southern Family concept record and wanted Cobb to be a part of it. He wrote “Down Home” for the project and entered a studio for the first time in nearly 10 years.
“It was like coming home, man,” he says.
“He’s like a redneck Paul Simon,” says Dave Cobb, praising his younger cousin’s command of lyrical imagery. “Brent has that way of writing like a Paul Simon but from a Southern perspective. When he writes, it feels like you’re walking on the landscape, you can see the trees, everyday life, rural Georgia.”
While Simon etched out a portrait of a Northeast existence in songs like “America” and “The Boxer,” Cobb explores the muddier, less peopled areas: like the remote woods of his native Peach State. In the brooding “Down in the Gulley,” off Shine on Rainy Day, he recounts a clandestine moonshine operation.
The song was inspired by Cobb’s hot-tempered uncle, who was erroneously accused of operating a still on his property.
“The sheriff knocks on the door of my uncle Bubba Cobb, who’s a good person and has a lot of wisdom, but he’s ornery as fuck. And it’s early-ass morning and Bubba gets pissed off,” says Cobb. “He got his pistol and told everybody to get the fuck off his property. I thought, ‘What a great song it could be if it had been a moonshine still.'”
True to life or not, “Down in the Gulley” is evocative and chilling, and close to the original intent for the album.
“We wanted to make a country-funk record,” says Dave Cobb. “There’s always a bit of soul in everything Georgians do and I wanted to play that up on his album. I wanted it to feel like a Southern soul record.”
The cousins may have lost track of their goal, but in the process they surfaced with a must-hear record, an album that has grabbed artists like Stapleton, Shooter Jennings and Miranda Lambert, who recently joined Cobb onstage at his gig in Nashville. Cobb wrote “Old Shit” for Lambert’s last album, Platinum, and “Good Ol’ Days” for her new The Weight of These Wings. And he credits Jennings for steering him toward a career as a songwriter in the first place. “Shooter’s Put the O Back in Country album turned me on to good music,” he says of Jennings’ 2005 debut, which was produced by, yep, Dave Cobb.
As Brent Cobb will tell you, it’s all coming full circle.
“I love the fact that everything has its season,” he says. “What a time to be alive. I feel like I’m living in history.”