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It All Starts With The Song: The Beating Heart Of Country Star Brent Cobb

Friday, 31 August 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Don VanCleave

It may sound like wishful thinking, but in an ideal world music would begin and end with nothing but a great song. There’d be no record companies or publications trying to shape our tastes. Image would be unimportant. Sales irrelevant. Radio airplay redundant. The only thing that would matter would be the creativity of the musician and how they reflect themselves through their art.

Anyone else who feels that way might want to acquaint themselves with country singer-songwriter Brent Cobb, and sharpish. Whether penning tunes for Little Big Town, Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney, or on his own Grammy-nominated major label debut ‘Shine On Rainy Day’, Cobb pours every ounce of himself into rootsy songs that are always unconcerned with either perception or reception. The fact that several of them have become hits feels like a happy byproduct.

Writing predominantly about family, friends and the rural way of life in his beloved Georgia, the 32-year-old singer – whose voice is gently laid back while possessing a hint of mischief and edge – makes music that’s a manifestation of everything in his heart. That was certainly evident on ‘Providence Canyon’, the southern gentleman’s recently released third album.

Full of both misty-eyed nostalgia and fondness for days gone by, as well as wistful longing for his homestead after years spent living in Nashville, it’s a superb effort that finds him employing electric guitars, keys and backing vocals in tandem with his cousin – lauded Nashville producer Dave Cobb – to create country-funk grooves with lashings of soul, Americana and southern rock textures.  

We spoke to Brent about ‘Providence Canyon’, the art of songwriting and his lifelong love affair with the place he was born, raised and continues to be inspired by ahead of his forthcoming UK and Ireland tour.

Did getting nominated for a Grammy for ‘Shine On Rainy Day’ boost your confidence or add extra pressure when it came to making ‘Providence Canyon’?

A bit of both. It gave me a little anxiety, having to follow up a Grammy nominated album. I tried to make sure not to focus too much on that and to focus on the songs the same way I did, and with the same heart as I did, on ‘Shine On Rainy Day’. It also validated that my heart was right, so if I follow my heart again then maybe I’ll have the same chance with the second album? I don’t know how often I’m gonna get to make records but, however many I do make, I’m gonna go in with that same mindset every time.

The new record has a bigger, fuller and funkier sound than its predecessor. Why did you decide to head in that direction and what inspired the album’s live feel?

Man, it was a lot of what I’d been listening to. Larry John Wilson, Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark and this compilation disc called ‘Country Funk’. I loved it. It just sounded like my environment, where I was raised. That, mixed with being on tour all of last year opening for Chris Stapleton. He’s got a powerful live show and it’s pretty electric.

Although there are only four band members up there it’s still a huge, rockin’ show. It influenced me and my band and we wanted to do the same thing. I’ve said this before, but I think the songs are still from a similar place as ‘Shine On…’. If you took away a couple of the electric guitars, background singing and keys it would be a pretty similar record.

Bruce Springsteen once said that you know a song is good if it stands up acoustically. Then you can take it in any direction you want.

That is the truth, man. It all starts with the song. To get everyone, whether they’re a part of the team on the business side or the creative side, sometimes it can be hard to get everyone to focus on ‘what’s best for the music? What’s best for the song?’ Don’t worry about all the other stuff. Don’t think with your head, think with your heart. If the song’s a good song it’s a good song and if the team focuses on that things seem to work.

Can you tell me about your songwriting process, in terms of the genesis of your ideas and how they develop from there?

Normally I’ll start with a riff. If I were to use it as an example, Ain’t A Road Too Long started with that riff. I didn’t know what I was gonna write about but it felt like ‘Man, I feel I’m getting on down the road on this one.’ So that, in turn, will usually inspire some sort of lyrical phrasing. It may not be actual words but I’ll just start scatting half lyrics out and then fit them together like a puzzle piece.

Is your storytelling autobiographical or do you create tales from your imagination?

A little bit of both. Some of them are completely autobiographical, like Come Home Soon, and then Sucker For A Good Time is somewhat autobiographical. I’ve experienced that person in an environment like the one described in that song and it’s a funny story to tell from first person. I’m just a sucker for a good time, man.

You’ve written for a lot of people who play a certain brand of modern country, yet your own work is more traditional. Is writing for big artists something that pays the bills or are you a fan of how broad and stylistically encompassing country music is these days?

Every cut I’ve had has always been written from a personal perspective and you could listen to each one I’ve had done by another artist and, for the most part, it sounds like something I would do myself. It’s always nice if someone else wants to record something I’ve written. I love someone else’s interpretation. I’ve said it before, back in the day there’d be five or six different versions of the same song. One that comes to mind is Sunday Morning’s Coming Down. I think everybody had their own version of that and they were all different. I wish more people would do that.

You’ve described ‘Providence Canyon’ as being ‘Southern-icana’. Can you explain what constitutes that stylistic hybrid and who are the reference points for such a sound?

I would say a lot of Americana is the roots of American music and, more times than not, the lyrics are slightly more poetic than what the mainstream is selling. The difference in my music is it’s more of the American south. It’s similar in tones and textures but the context of the lyrics are a little more southern. I think that makes it Southern-icana.  

I would say Larry John could be considered that. Guy Clerk’s ‘Texas Cooking’, that’s sort of Southern-icana in my opinion. My manager actually coined that term. He’s a photographer from Macon, Georgia. Over the years he’s taken a lot of super pictures of the American south. He opened an exhibit in Nashville a couple of years ago to show some of his work and he called [it] ‘Southern-icana’. It made me go ‘Damn, that’s exactly what my music is. We’re meant to be together.’

Can you tell me about the significance of the title track and what it means to you?

I started writing it probably seven years ago, and was just thinking about an actual canyon called Providence Canyon that’s about an hour away from where I’m from in Georgia. We used to go and camp there growing up, just to hang out, and I was reminiscing on those early days and wrote the first verse and chorus. To be honest with you, and this sounds terrible as someone who works with words for a living, I didn’t know the definition of the word ‘providence’.

I looked it up and it was ‘the protective care of God, or of nature, as a spiritual being or power.’ After I’d written that first verse and chorus it gave it a whole new meaning.  ‘The night won’t last forever after all’ and ‘What do you say we go down to Providence Canyon?’ That’s the way this whole area, and the record itself, feels to me. Sort of like a like a protecting canyon, protecting something sacred.

In terms of it being a safe haven, as well as home being a secure environment in much of your work, do you almost have a primitive fear of the world and a need for that protection?

I think so, and I also feel the same way about my music. More a philosophical than literal safe haven, and music needs that too. I was signing record covers the other day somewhere in Oregon and, looking at my cover, it looks like a Bob Ross painting. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s he had a show on a public broadcasting channel and it was the most soothing show you could watch.

So while I’m signing these covers, and there’s this beautiful day and we got some nice music going, I get the feeling of when I was a child watching cartoons and Bob Ross painting pictures at my Grandma’s on a beautiful Saturday morning. I hope that’s the feeling people get when they become a fan of my music. That providence canyon of keeping something sacred. That’s the same emotion and, to me, it all ties in together.

In your music the topic of where you grew up features prominently. What can you tell people who’ve never been there about what it’s like and why it’s so special to you?

Oh, it’s like a refreshing glass of whatever your beverage is. I love it and it’s a little simpler, a little more timeless, like it hasn’t changed a whole lot. It’s poetic to me.

Are you concerned that way of living is slowly being eroded by this fast paced and increasingly disconnected and fractious modern world?

I think it still exists, maybe it’s only in my own mind and my own little world, but I try to live my life the way I saw my Granddaddy live his. It can still be done. Things have gotten more and more complicated but, at the same time, if that’s the way things are, if things continue to progress and get more complicated, then that means this very present moment is a simple as it will ever be and we should take advantage of it. That’s what I try to do.

What can you say about the inspiration behind King of Alabama?

King of Alabama was about a good friend of mine, Wayne Mills. He was a great guy, a honky tonk hero, and was shot and killed the night of the George Jones tribute show in Tennessee in 2013. It was a really hard loss for a lot of us. He left behind a seven-year-old son and a wife and I couldn’t imagine being taken away from my daughter, my unborn child, or being seven-years-old and losing my father.

I started writing King of Alabama and wound up finishing it with a friend of mine, whom I met through Wayne, Adam Hood. When we got through I asked Adam what he might think about maybe adding Wayne’s son, who’s now 10-years-old, as a co-writer and he thought it would be a great idea. We got hold of Wayne’s widow, asked her permission and got his son added as a co-writer. That song is as honest as I could be about a friend I loved.

You and your family have finally relocated back to Georgia after over a decade living in Nashville. Do you worry that will harm your career at all, not being there and making your presence felt?

A little bit, but I’d gotten to the point where I’d been gone for 12 years, so now - if I stopped being able to make a living in music - at least I’m already back in Georgia. I don’t mind going back to cutting trees.

Where do you hope to take your music in future?

I have no idea. I’d like to believe that being back here will rub off on the stories, maybe songs will come more as, not so much missing home, but more about stories that are here.

Brent Cobb Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue September 04 2018 - DUBLIN Whelan's
Wed September 05 2018 - LONDON Dingwalls
Fri September 07 2018 - MANCHESTER Night and Day
Sun September 09 2018 - BRIGHTON Prince Albert

Click here to compare & buy Brent Cobb Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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