Crossing through the garage in Dave Cobb’s West Nashville home studio, it’s hard not to spot the flashy, fluorescent-pink car parked alongside some storage boxes. Particularly because it’s small, plastic and actually belonging to his 5-year-old daughter.
“I’m a homebody,” Cobb tells Rolling Stone Country, perched on a stool between a super-rare Helios mixing console and a tape machine on loan from the Buddy Holly estate. Though he’s now best known for producing the likes of Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, the Savannah, Georgia native actually got his start as a guitarist/bassist for the Brit-fronted Tender Idols. “But I didn’t love touring. I met my wife and I wanted to stay home. And here, it’s the same feeling I get from being in a band — I’m just in different bands all the time.”
Indeed he is — in his role as producer, Cobb is a valuable collaborator and instrumentalist for all the artists he welcomes into his studio (or, in the case of Isbell, his kitchen floor, where some of Southeastern was recorded). Cobb honed his craft by helping to produce friend’s records, and by deconstructing his favorite albums as a sort of musical detective.
“I listen to records very intently,” he says. “I’ll go insane looking at pictures of the Quonset Hut and wondering why they mic’d it that way, or listening to Stax records and wondering what preamps they used, going crazy trying to chase the sound.”
It was a relationship with Jennings that set the rock & roll-rooted Cobb down a country path. “I listened to the great catalogue that Shooter had access to,” Cobb says, “and I don’t think I knew of good country before them. My parents listened to country, but the records in the house were awful — K-mart country records, like the Flying Nun sings Johnny Cash or Jim Nabors singing the Everly Brothers.” Jennings’ father, Waylon, is one of Cobb’s biggest inspirations: a framed, hilariously elegant copy of the sheet music for his song “Outlaw Shit” shares wall space with gold records and black-and-white pictures of Bob Dylan.
Jennings and Cobb’s collaboration resulted in 2005’s Put the ‘O’ Back In Country, a renegade album that piqued the attention of Nashville, including Johnson — the two spent four impromptu days in the studio in Los Angeles, generating material that would go on to be used on The Guitar Song and That Lonesome Song (with some still left over). Regardless of genre, Cobb always brings his rock & roll spirit to the controls — using techniques more common on old Beatles or Rolling Stones records than anything made on Music Row. “I like the danger of rock records, and I try to marry that to country,” he says.
Still, Cobb resists putting a heavy fingerprint on anything he produces. “When I work with a band, I like to make them sound like them, ” he says. “And I don’t feel like my records have a lot of cohesion. Maybe the cohesion is making them as honest as possible.”
Cobb’s current projects include the next album by twangy soulful songwriter Anderson East, a country LP by Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash, and a future project with lauded country singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton.
“Dave showed me how to take control of a session, and how to follow your gut, no matter what people say,” Jennings says. “The music he has made since his arrival on the scene stands tall in a forest of shit-music trees.”
Here, Cobb helps Rolling Stone Country see the forest for the shit-music trees, taking us through five of his top country moments.
Shooter Jennings’ Put the “O” Back in Country
“That was the first country record we ever made. I was in my mid-20s and it was debauchery. We did a couple songs to see if it would work out, and we ended up making a whole record without a label — eventually it was signed to Universal. It was just a bunch of kids acting like idiots and I think it related to people because it was human. And he related to his peers because at the time, in country, things were still pretty formulaic. That record wasn’t: It was wild. It has the rock & roll danger and the country premise, lyrically. That was a wild time — the way it was made was a big ‘fuck you,’ not thinking it was going to get signed to a major label and put on country radio. My role was producing but also babysitting — everyone was going buck-wild, drinking and partying and I think you feel it on the record. It sounds like a party and that’s why its fun. At the time on country radio there was nothing like it. We had no idea what we were doing recording-wise, engineering-wise, it was just having a good time.”
Jamey Johnson’s Guitar Song and That Lonesome Song
“They’re all the same record for me. I met Jamey through Shooter. He came out to Los Angeles and said, ‘Let’s do some recording.’ We went into the studio there and recorded maybe 14 or 16 songs and two of those songs made it on the first record and seven songs made it on The Guitar Song. There are still more left, some of these could be put out on the next record. All the stuff I did with him was recorded in four days. It was just a bunch of buddies hanging out. I remember being in the studio and hearing him coming through the headphones and thinking that you never hear voices like that. He’s just incredibly talented. He’s so mysterious, though. We’d record, then we’d sit outside, and you’d never know what he was thinking. You don’t know if he likes it or what’s going through his brain. Is he going to punch me or go write a hit song?”
Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
“I’m really proud of the record and I’m glad that people are open to it. We made that record in four days. Sturgill would show up with a song idea and we’d make it into something all together. We didn’t think anybody would care about it. There was no going in and saying, ‘We’re going to change people’s perceptions of music,’ because we weren’t. We were just trying to make ourselves happy. Sturgill knows more about music than most people on the planet. Not just country, he’s an R&B expert, folk, bluegrass. That record is an amalgamation of a lot of things we really like. It wasn’t stressful. When those guys were playing, I was in there rocking the tape machines and making them do weird stuff, a million little Sixties techniques — there’s nothing electronic on it. When we got done with it we were sort of giggling thinking, ‘Man, we just sealed your career. That’s it, you’re done. People are going to hear this and think, what happened?’ We knew county radio wasn’t going to pick it up. I feel like it says a lot about people’s musical palates that it’s done well, and it’s testing the waters to see how far we can push it. And I wouldn’t say we aren’t going to try and push it further next time. But I don’t think we’re going to push it for the sake of impressing anybody — we’re going to do it to amuse ourselves. We’re already starting another one — I feel like we could make three records this year. Maybe he doesn’t release all three, but we should make them. We’re already doing something totally different and it will probably make a lot of people mad.”
Jason Isbell’s Southeastern
“I chased Jason for a couple years, and that record is me trying to make it feel like you are in the room with him. He recorded some of it in my kitchen. It’s as if he’s come over to your house, set up and played. I felt like on his previous records, they were great, but there was a lot going on. This record was really making it about his lyrics. Hearing his voice, and the fragility of it at that time. Everything is live, everyone is tracking live together. I think he is the best in Americana, period. I don’t think anybody is better than him. And that was my feeling, that he deserved the recognition. It crushed me making that record. I remember when he was singing ‘Elephant,’ just hearing it tracking, its one of those things in life you can’t believe you’re hearing. That one sounded like one of my favorite records of all time and I’d never heard it played before. You can’t believe that’s coming through the speakers. It was maybe two weeks to do that record and he was sober and getting ready for his wedding. He was like, ‘Yeah, cool, I’m getting fitted for a tux and I can come in for a couple hours,’ it was so casual for him. It felt really light. It wasn’t a big premeditated thing. But, man, that guy crushes you lyrically over and over again.”
The Oak Ridge Boys’ The Boys Are Back
“My parents listened to Oak Ridge Boys and they were one of my dad’s favorite bands — I heard it over and over in the car growing up. I was doing a Shooter Jennings record and I suggested we have the Oak Ridge Boys sing back up. Next thing we knew the Jennings family was flying to Nashville and recording with the Oak Ridge Boys — they called me later and asked me to produce their record. My dad wasn’t a musician, he was a very corporate kind of guy, but this was the first time he recognized that I was doing something in music. We made the record about bringing back the gospel beginnings. There are a couple tracks singing around one microphone the way they used to do it in the Sixties. They’re so unbelievably talented. What groups exist like that? I made them do crazy stuff like cut a White Stripes song and a Ray Lamontagne song, since I’m a huge fan of his. They were receptive to everything. For me the best thing about making that record was developing a lifelong relationship with them. We did a song which my little cousin Brent Cobb wrote; he was 17. And at one point I said, ‘I really want you guys to do this like the Stamps Quartet.’ And Richard Sterban said, ‘You know, I was actually in the Stamps Quartet.’ He actually sang for Elvis in the Seventies. And when they jumped into that frame of mind, they truly became the Stamps Quartet.”