This Is American Music: An Interview with Superproducer Dave Cobb
We chat with Dave Cobb, four-time Grammy award-winning Americana producer, about his production work at RCA's Studio A, the significance of musical teamwork, historical lineage, and the state of the music industry.
Dave Cobb is a four-time Grammy award-winning producer of several of Americana music's most popular and acclaimed artists: Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, John Prine, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, Brent Cobb, Jamey Johnson, Colter Wall, Lori McKenna, Shooter Jennings. Cobb recently has taken up residence in Nashville's famed RCA Studio A, the studio built by the legendary Chet Atkins in 1965.
I had the chance to chat with Dave Cobb, and the conversation ranged over his production work at RCA's Studio A and touched on concepts like the significance of musical teamwork, historical lineage, and the state of the music industry—at least the Americana music industry—today.
I proposed an analogy: in the movie industry, a great film takes the combination of a team of great actors/actresses, supporting actors, cinematography, and a great director, and more; so even though great actors and actresses get most of the public accolades; it's a team effort. So, considering this same team effort must apply to what goes into making a great album, wouldn't it be more appropriate to change the title of "music producer" to "music director"? Cobb's quick-witted response was: "my real specialty is to figure out where we order our dinner from."
Cobb has produced albums for a number of people who inspire real loyalty from their fans, and deep emotional connections among their followers, genre-defying Americana musicians like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. "How do you approach each artist?" I wondered. "How do you preserve their unique qualities when you go into the studio?" Cobb replied, "For starters, I wouldn't take on a record if I couldn't hear where it was going. I seek out people for their unique talent, not mine. I focus on making the album about the artists – not about the layers of sound. It's about putting the artist in the forefront. I prioritize making space for them. I want to make sure that the album presents every single ounce of each artist that it can."
I commented that it's a real skill to have the kind of empathic abilities that can identify others' distinct qualities. His response was: "People aren't buying me, they are buying the artist. It's not my place to dominate; my place is to serve what's best for the artists and for their fans. My contributions should never be the focal point."
Assuming some people are direct, and others are reserved, I wondered how Cobb handles the different personality types of the people who come to work with him. "It's true, some have set ideas, while others want direction. But if there's ever any difference of opinion, the artist always wins. I'll go with whatever the artist decides. But at the same time, although I make the records, the people I work with are my friends; it never feels like a client relationship. (laughs) I don't think anyone in the music community responds very well to authority. Making records is a casual process, and I hope it never feels to anyone like the red light's on, because if it does, then I'm doing it wrong. "
With all the important elements that analog recording technology has to offer, I was curious about how he balances that against the ease of storing and sharing that digital equipment provides. "I love the analog sound, and we always record with analog equipment. The consoles are analog, the microphones are vintage, and we record to tape, but then we do store it in digital because it's a great preservation tool. It's great to have them both, because as we're making records, we're constantly balancing what the record is evolving into, sonically. So when we get to the mixing stage, I love digital because we've been able to store the sound we'd been working on, and it also has allowed me to store, on each day, what we thought the sound should be on that day. So it's never like we remake the takes into something completely different at the end. It's been evolving, and we can preserve each moment as it occurs."
"Digital technology allows me to achieve a balance, and save in the computer what our thought process was that day, how we were feeling that day, but you do have some flexibility when you come back to things at the end. Now in the 1950s and '60s, you didn't have the capability to mix something later, so you'd have to commit something to two-track tape, or vinyl that day, permanently. I mostly do that same thing but still balance it. And the digital storage is important too."
What's it like working in the legendary RCA Studio A; do you find ghosts of its past surrounding you? "It was built in 1965 for Chet Atkins, it was Chet's hangout," Cobb laughed. "and there were so many great people, from Waylon Jennings to Dolly Parton, Eddie Arnold—there's a huge list of people who recorded there historically. There's a historian in the building who's going through archives and finding pictures and details and things from that room. And for as many pictures as she has found, like, of Jerry Reed in there or Waylon Jennings recording in there, she's found party pictures! It was kind of a hangout, like a big party room, there are pictures of photo shoots, and there's all kinds of fun stuff, and I think they always had a lot of fun in there. Whenever I'm in there the walls are filled with as many echoes of fun stuff and parties and as music being made in there. We're surrounded by echoes of music and parties."
Cobb was called on to produce a recent project appearing at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in May called Country's Roaring '70s: Outlaws and Armadillos, for which there were an exhibit and an accompanying album. Some of the performers (Billy Joe Shaver, Bobby Bare, Joe Ely, and more) were also part of the exhibit, while others were younger generation performers who carry the country music legacy forward (Jason Isbell, Ashley Monroe, Colter Wall, and others.) I asked him how this came about.
"I co-produced that with Shooter Jennings. I have nothing but respect for the Country Music Hall of Fame. They are really up on the happenings of Americana music. They are really in tune with the goings on of Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Chris Stapleton and all those guys. So when they called me and asked me to do that, I was 'in', because I have such love and respect for them. When I heard the topic, I called Shooter immediately because obviously, his family was a big part of that sound, Waylon Jennings was his dad, and Jessi Colter is his mother, and he really helped put it together. So the truth is I co-tackled it with Shooter and Abi Tapia (CMHOF Program director); all I did really was make a couple calls to people I thought should be on the project too, and then used my studio band, I brought in the people I love to be part of it and then it wasn't that different from what I'd do in the studio."
"A big part of making a record, as we said earlier, is being part of a team, with the engineers and the players, and I have a real secret weapon with a couple of players, Chris Powell the drummer, is a secret weapon – he's currently touring with Brandi Carlile – he's unbelievable. We never miss a vocal track because he never messes up. And then there's Brian Allen, the bass player, he's integral to the team, and Mike Webb, he plays keys. These guys make my life easy. You know, back in the day, they had the "A-team" in Nashville, and in LA they had the 'wrecking crew', and the Motown had their band, and Muscle Shoals had their band, so it's very much of the ilk of all that stuff."
"For engineers, I brought in Gena Johnson to make sure anything went smoothly, she made sure the mic-ing was exact and took care of all the peripherals, so I never had to worry about any of that stuff."
"We ran the songs for each artist all on one day, and everybody was so great. Obviously, the people we were playing with are legends, so we had to catch up to them, but it was very cool and a lot of fun and good to hear their stories. I mean, we love what a lot of these people did, and for example, it was a blast to get to talk to Billy Joe Shaver and Jessi Colter, whom we adore, and hear the stories of what they did and why."
It seems that Americana music has a recurring theme of echoing through the generations, between the ghosts in your studio, and this production. "Yes," Cobb agreed, "and then you had people there like Ashley Monroe, and the direct lineages and influences of Jessi Colter, and Kristofferson and Guy Clark, and so even the new people who came in like Colter Wall and Jamie Johnson, they are descendants of the people who founded American music. That was the plot."
Whether people are aware of it, there's a historical lineage behind good music today. How important is that historical background, I wondered. "Well it's funny you say that because I think about the importance of history all the time. If I wasn't making music, I'd be teaching history. When I'm not making music I'm probably watching the History Channel. I would absolutely be a teacher. I think I drive people crazy telling them about the Louisiana Purchase and things like that. Real history is better than any Hollywood movie."
"The same thing can be said for the significance of music history. As a kid, all I cared about were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, but then I don't think I acknowledged a lot of American music even though it was probably right in front of me. But then I discovered where they got it from, and it's right in our backyard. I'm proud of our history. I'm from Georgia, and I'm proud of our state's lineage in music, and the lineage of music in Tennessee; and all these areas: North Carolina, Alabama, and South Carolina and so many areas rich with blues, and soul, and jazz. I'm really aware of and in awe of the roots of it all, and I definitely think we pay a lot of attention to that stuff, always at least unconsciously, if sometimes not consciously."
Americana music has a strong connection with its African roots, I chimed in. "Oh, a thousand percent! I feel so honored to acknowledge that too. My favorite music is soul music, and I love how it influenced country. There was a time a couple of hundred years ago when there wasn't a whole lot of difference between blues and country. And the church, the church is a huge part of why people play the way they do in American music because it also comes from hymnals, they are part of the fabric, and whether you go to church or not, it's impossible to escape that part of the influence. I embrace it, it's great."
And then when you think about it, it's part of personal history too. "Everybody loves music, from the lullaby their mother sang to them to put them to sleep, this is in everybody's heart and everybody's soul, I have a nine-year-old daughter, it's interesting to see her reaction to Michael Jackson, or Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", it starts when they're babies, but it's great to watch them, they're like flowers and part of what makes them bloom correlates with their musical discovery and identification every step of the way."
In summary, what would you say is significant about the here and now, about this moment in history, for music? "I'm excited because I feel like this is the first era in my lifetime, finally, where honest art can sell records. I think that's the important thing that people should know; they don't have to do x, y, and z to have a record deal or get a hit on the radio. For the first time, you can be yourself and have a hit on the radio; you can be yourself and sell records. There are no handcuffs anymore. People can do it themselves. Even Spotify has a bright side; they give voice to the independent artist. And you can make honest music just by being yourself. I'm excited because there's such a growing community of like-minded people now, I encourage everyone to meet each other and hang out with each other and strengthen our connections. It's good to have such a growing community of people writing good music and honest songs. (laughs) I'm a very glass half full person."
On the horizon, you can expect more new releases produced by Dave Cobb in the coming months. "There are a lot of things I'm excited about. Just finished Colter Wall's second record, Lori McKenna's new one and she's one of my favorite songwriters in the world and Amanda Shires."