Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
A warm prehistoric buzzing fills singer-songwriter Brent Cobb’s ears, a commanding percussion of the pines. As he strains to listen closer, he realizes he’s hearing the humming of thousands of cicadas in the sultry forest. He turns in his bed, flirting with sleep in his temporary Los Angeles apartment, thousands of miles from Georgia. The windows are closed, it’s wintertime, and the world is shut out–but all he hears is his home.
“When I lived in L.A., I would lay in bed and hear that in the back of my mind—the sound of cicadas. When you’re in a warmer climate in the summertime, you can hear these cicadas constantly in the evening.”
Forgive Cobb if the South is on his mind. His sixth studio album, Southern Star, released September 22, features sketches of rural Southern living and nostalgic moments from his home.
Cobb’s speaking voice is warm and deliberate, with a smoky timbre that makes a person want to indulge in the tobacco products he has an affinity for. He has enviable long, tawny hair, a substantial beard, and a mischievous grin. The first day I met him, he wore a denim pearl snap, canvas chore coat, mahogany aviators, and a cheeky trucker hat with an embroidered buck labeled “rack.” He has an easy energy conducive to conversation and a laidback demeanor often associated with the South. He pauses and continues, “I carry [those memories] with me everywhere, and it’s my peace place. Not only physically being in the American South, but mentally and emotionally being there too.”
The Grammy-nominated artist is widely considered one of the preeminent songwriters of the Americana and traditional Country revival. Beyond his own music, he has written and co-wrote with commercial artists, including Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, Luke Combs, and Little Big Town. Cobb attributes his writing success to his ability to lean into an emotion. When a melody comes to mind, he tries to decipher where it came from and what he was feeling when he created it.
“First and foremost, emotion is my most important part of the song,” Cobb states as he elaborates on his process. “But emotion and sense of place are also intertwined.” Cobb’s everpresent sense of place is heightened in Southern Star. His home region is his self-admitted muse and respite. In the title track, he proclaims, “Under the southern star I heal all of my scars/As cicadas sing ain’t it the sweetest dream/winding kudzu vines untangled of my mind/how beloved is my home sweet home.”
Cobb’s poignant nod to his roots mimics other country greats like Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Tom T. Hall’s “Homecoming,” or the brilliant Dolly Parton album, Tennessee Mountain Home. When Dolly’s name enters our conversation, Cobb swoons, “Dolly Parton is such a boss and an amazing songwriter. She’s beautiful. She’s so smart and just a fucking badass…I think sometimes people get stuck on me, thinking I’m just writing about my home down in Georgia all the time. But that’s also what is so great about Tennessee Mountain Home. That’s all Dolly ever did was write about her real life. And she’s a worldwide superstar because of that. She never changed a thing. And I relate so much to that.”
Like Parton in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Tennessee, Cobb grew up in an area with a complex and fascinating history. Cobb’s proximity to Macon, Georgia, had a heavy hand in the development of his distinct sound–a combination of southern rock, soul, and country–with an ever-present tasteful groove. “Otis Redding (Cobb’s personal hero) and Little Richard are both from Macon, which is just crazy to imagine. And, of course, the Allman Brothers, too, and Ray Charles from Albany, about an hour south. So you have all these founding fathers of American southern soul.”
Cobb co-produced Southern Star along with multi-instrumentalist Oran Thorton and Capricorn house engineer Rob Evans. Following his intuition of the importance of place, he opted to record it at the legendary Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon. Phil Walden, Redding’s manager, founded the studio in the late 1960s. Walden hoped that his star’s international fame would propel the new studio’s popularity as its main artist, along with Redding’s request for a recording studio closer to his home. While the plans were cut short by Redding’s untimely death in 1967, the studio still prevailed and has recorded acts including the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Percy Sledge, and Charlie Daniels.
“The history of that town and that studio has always been a ‘southern star’ shining the light on the talents of that area for the rest of the world to see. And so it just only made sense to do it there. I used all local Macon musicians. I wanted people to know, of course, the history of Macon is sacred, but it’s not just history. It’s still happening right now.”
Cobb marks another artist in a growing list of musicians who are prioritizing a specific region over the expected entertainment cities. This intentionality includes the recording process, “What’s cool about [this shift] is it also goes back to music production of the fifties, sixties, and early seventies. Where if you wanted to make a certain kind of album, you go to that city. If you want a rock and roll album, you go to Memphis. If you want a country album, you go to Nashville. If you want a Western album, you go to Texas. If you want a bluegrass album, you go to Kentucky. You don’t have to go to this one town to make music, that’s when it becomes bull shit, right? It loses its identity. I think we are getting back to music of certain regions.”
Many of Cobb’s mentors and peers have followed a similar trajectory, making genres refreshingly difficult to apply. In “When Country Came Back to Town,” he recalls an impressive list of artists, musicians, and producers who have fostered the country music revival. One stand-out is producer Dave Cobb, Brent Cobb’s paternal cousin, who has a dizzying clientele, including Brandi Carlisle, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Colter Wall, Jamey Johnson, and Ashley Monroe. As Brent Cobb sings, “I guess now everyone knows Cousin Dave, but he’s been around awhile/Proving simple truth and music they just don’t go out of style/It’s hard to tell when you’re in it sometimes the moment’s too profound/But if I had to bet my money that’s when country came back to town.”
These simple truths permeate Southern Star, an album infused with the joys of daily life. In “It’s a Start,” Cobb sings, “And it feels so good being here with you/Just burnin’ firewood/Tellin’ jokes we learned from old folks/Sippin’ cokes with barbeque.” Or in “Patina,” an intimate song written by Cobb’s wife Layne, “I got one hand on the wheel and one on your thigh/You got a way that makes my heart feel like it’s flying…Where do we come from, where do we go? Answers to questions we may never know/All I know is we got right now.” Cobb finds the balance between being specific to his home yet still relatable. “A goal for me is to make my songs personally universal and universally personal.”
While Cobb masterfully ignites nostalgia, the album avoids excessive sentimentality with a Southern Rock flair of the rowdy hedonistic temptations aptly depicted in “Devil Ain’t Done.” As he writes, “I got some drinkin’ smokin’ cheatin’ left to do/I’ve been a runnin’ with the wrong crowd…I reckon I’ll just live forever/If only the good die young/Heaven ain’t ready and the devil ain’t done.” Or a healthy dose of humor in “O’nt Know When,” where you can almost hear Cobb’s wink and a smile in the rollicking first verse, “Well the doctor dropped me, ain’t no shock/I was ready to rock right from the start.”
Cobb’s brilliance as a songwriter is his ability to depict all spectrums of the human condition with the care and honesty it deserves. He shows us his home in all its iterations. It is a compilation of romantic sketches of Southern life, good-naturedly balanced with road wisdom and a dash of psychedelics. It’s an intoxicating dichotomy that is part of the attraction of the persona and songwriting of Brent Cobb. A man working towards a good life, who admittedly sometimes falls on his ass, “Hallelujah rollin’ through ya/Lord forgive me all my sins.”
“I try to always write my personal story, but sometimes I don’t know what the deeper meaning is. I just know that it’s there. I feel it. Sometimes a lyric may not make perfect sense, but my spirit knows that it’s right.”
With Southern Star, Cobb gets closer to his identity, closer to what his spirit knows is right. There is no tidy and perfect ending to life, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. As Cobb closes out his album:
“Under the shade tree/Laid back with a cane pole/If they ain’t bitin’/Still soothes my country soul/And that’s where you’ll find me/Right at home…
And the day always runs to night/Somehow the dark finds its way back to light/And all life’s mysteries will be told in time/Until then, I’ll never mind.”