Producer Dave Cobb’s upcoming all-star compilation Southern Family is all about the genetic roots and familial memories that build musical minds, from the garden of Zac Brown’s grandmother to Jamey Johnson and his “Momma’s Table.” For Anderson East’s contribution, “Learning,” he reflected on the person he credits most with teaching him the compassion and tenacity it takes to be a man of character: his father.
“It was one of those reflective days,” East tells Rolling Stone Country about the song, written with friend Aaron Raitiere. (Watch the video above.) “Were in a hotel room in Louisville or something, and were talking about our old men, our pops, and how they’ve shaped us as people. It all stemmed out of that moment. [My father] was always there, and so supportive. If I showed interest in something, he was there to add something to it: to take me to baseball games, or coach little league. And he bought me my first guitar.”
East grew up in Alabama, and he moved to Nashville at a young age. “Learning” tells the story of how he left his hometown at 17 for Tennessee to chase the artistic dream, always thinking back to how his father encouraged and guided him along the way. It’s why he wanted to keep the video, directed by Becky Fluke at a divey lounge bar about an hour outside of Nashville, focused on his foot-pounding performance and the lyrics delivered in his boundless rasp rather than paint some glossy Hollywood story.
“I didn’t want it to be anything dolled up,” says East about his vision for the song that pounds out a soulful Muscle Shoals groove, evoking that last minute of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” where the horns explode and his voice wails. “That’s the attitude I approach everything with. I don’t want there to be a lot of dressing on anything. Just an honest representation of the music.”
The Grammy-nominated Cobb assembled a stellar crew for Southern Family, from country megastars like Miranda Lambert and Brown to Americana kings Jason Isbell and John Paul White, with the idea of creating a concept album dedicated to the familial histories of these Southern (or Southern in spirit, like Brandy Clark) artists. And though it’s about the family you’re born into, it’s also about the one you create — as so many of the musicians on the record are not only produced by Cobb (Isbell, East, Johnson and Chris Stapleton) but collaborators and friends. Or, like Morgane and Chris Stapleton, married. East and Lambert, as it’s been widely reported, are dating.
“He’s like the guy that hosts those really cool parties,” says East about Cobb, who produced his debut LP Delilah and released it on his own imprint, Low Country Sound/Elektra Records. “You go and you meet people you click with instantly and understand, and everyone speaks the same language. [Cobb] wants everybody to be friends and working together. We’re always having a conversation about building community, along with making good music. If you look back through pop culture — George Jones, Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson] — they were hanging out and were buddies, building together and making each other better. That’s the connective tissue of a lot of it: making everyone feel not so alone in this crazy existence of making music.”
So what did East’s father think of his poignant tribute? “Hasn’t heard it yet,” he says. “I hope he doesn’t hate it and that it’s not too revealing. But he knows his son loves him and is very grateful.”
Southern Family is out March 18th on Low Country Sound/Elektra Records and available for preorder now.