The most telling credit on the cover of Southern Family is deliberately downplayed. On the back cover — under a banner of all-star country and Americana artists including Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert and Brandy Clark — reads, in small type, these words: “Produced by Dave Cobb.”
Casual listeners often show little concern for the role that producers play in shaping whatever modern music they may embrace. But Cobb is, undeniably, the producer of the moment, the stylist whose introduction of Americana and roots-savvy sounds into the world of contemporary country stands practically as anarchy to a corporate Nashville sound that is so steadfast and insular in design.
Southern Family is a collection of 12 songs by 13 artists that address such conflict by not addressing it. This is, in essence, a Cobb solo album patterned after the 1978 Civil War concept record White Mansions that similarly teamed a pack of country outlaws and traditionalists (Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings). On Southern Family, the theme is exactly that: fervent, heartfelt and, at times, sentimental portraits of familial love and culture. Nearly all the artists sing their own songs with Cobb as producer at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, which is now his recording home.
Most of the artists rise to the theme of Southern Family without overstating it. Isbell’s God is a Working Man speaks crisply to his prideful roots, a blend of Southern storytelling and reverential country. But the women largely set the pace of the album. Lambert noticeably downshifts on Sweet By and By, adopting a quietly intense and vastly more contained country tone that one seriously hopes will carry over into her future work. Morgane Stapleton gets top billing over one of Cobb’s star clients, husband Chris Stapleton, for a duet update of You Are My Sunshine that swaps the song’s innocence for a darker, swampy electricity. Topping them all is the brilliant Brandy Clark, whose I Cried is elegant, honest and un-coerced country heartbreak.
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The only misfire goes to the Zac Brown Band, whose Grandma’s Garden overdoses on its own sentimental forwardness the way that much of radio-tooled country does. Frankly, Cobb’s atypically heavy-handed production doesn’t help. Also, Anderson East’s Learning starts with a kind of Randall Brambett-style soulfulness but reaches for Otis Redding-level intensity and winds up sounding forced and falsely imitative.
But then there is Jamey Johnson, the ultra-stoic country stylist whose deep but never austere sense of familial solace on Mama’s House is as rustic and real as an oak tree. It is a lesson in devotion, but one told with the kind of homegrown solemnity that isn’t being hawked like insurance, as so much of today country music is. The song underscores how Cobb keeps this music direct, reflective and very much in the family.
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com