There’s a world-weariness to Brent Cobb’s voice that belies his relatively young age. Coming ten years after his 2006 debut No Place Left to Leave, Cobb’s latest, Shine on Rainy Day, retains its predecessor’s stripped-down, laid-back song-centric vibe. For someone who has, in the intervening years, played the Nashville game penning songs for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney, Cobb’s staunch adherence to the craft of songwriting in a traditional sense is refreshing. Like his spiritual predecessor Kris Kristofferson, Cobb plays the role of country music outsider while simultaneously keeping his name firmly within the genre’s mainstream. It’s an odd stylistic dichotomy, yet it shows off the versatility of Cobb as both songwriter and performer.
On Shine on Rainy Day, Cobb’s native Georgia plays a large role within the album’s storytelling-style narrative. To be sure, these are not your typical Nashville story-songs. Rather the exist in the tradition of not only the Outlaw Country movement but also, more recently, the studied earnestness of Red Dirt artists. These performers seek to return the emphasis to the songs themselves, crafting relatable tales of the everyman without pandering to a lifestyle aesthetic. Rather than adhering the paint-by-numbers approach adopted by the majority of mainstream contemporary country artists, Cobb and others borrow a page from the previous generation, setting everyday, even commonplace issues to song.
It’s a decidedly studied throwback approach that, while perhaps anachronistic within the world of 21st century country music, possesses a timelessness on par with that of the best of country giants like Nelson, Jennings, Haggard, and Cash. Yet it forgoes affectation in favor of a low-key lyrical sincerity and matter-of-factness that exists at the heart of all great country music. Simple, unfettered and relevant, this approach harkens back to the idea of the genre being that of the common people. From “Traveling Poor Boy” and its disaffected narrator to the coal miner of “Diggin’ Holes” to the farmer in desperate need of rain — both literal and metaphorical — on “Let the Rain Come Down”, it’s clear Cobb knows and inhabits the characters populating his songs; these are or could well be real people, those doing their best to get by with the hand they’ve been dealt.
The title track is an almost Laurel Canyon-esque country ballad shot through with shimmering melancholy, it’s sparse guitar and drums arrangement perfectly underscoring the song’s defeated optimism. “Ain’t it funny how you learn to pray / When your blue skies turn grey,” he sings, tapping into the existential notion of recognizing the omnipresent futility and ever-looming disappointment we only acknowledge in our darkest moments, remaining blissfully unaware the remainder of the time.
More so than anything, this type of songwriting reflects the lives of the often marginalized Middle Americans whose hard-scrabble existence is weirdly appropriated for commodification by a Nashville-based music industry trafficking in a lifestyle aesthetic more than deep-rooted social and musical traditions. “Down in the Gulley” plays into this perfectly, detailing the reasoning behind those who run the risk of operating a moonshine still. Here it’s not for the idealized outlaw status, but rather a real and viable means of providing for one’s family in the face of overwhelming societal odds and a callous system. Born of necessity, the song’s protagonists’ actions not only make a name for the family but help them to survive when times get particularly trying.
In this, Shine on Rainy Day exists within the grand tradition of songwriters using the voice of the common man to create music and art that is immediately relatable, familiar and rooted in the way life really is rather than how it is sold to be. With his cousin Dave Cobb, who has worked with, among others, Sturgill Simpson and Shooter Jennings, behind the boards, these songs are given the stripped-down, no-frills treatment they deserve. Rather than showcasing flashy playing or overblown production, Shine on Rainy Day gets to the heart of the country music tradition, placing the emphasis squarely on the lyrics and the lives of those often overlooked to a troubling degree. As evidenced by our current social and political climate, there are perhaps more of these disaffected individuals than we could have ever guessed. Perhaps it’s once again time to start listening to the real voice of the people rather than the fear-mongering rhetoric of those in positions of power.