Every week, we tell you about an album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is the compilation album Southern Family.
Whether you know it or not, Dave Cobb, in the last five years, has become something like the country Phil Spector. Known for his back-to-basics, no-Bro Country allowed production, he’s been a One Man Gang fighting against the tide of modernity in country music, making music that sounds more like 1976 than 2016. I’m mixed on whether or not that’s a good thing—after all, Waylon, Willie and Merle fought for the right to make whatever kind of music they wanted, and if Sam Hunt wants to do country&B he should be allowed to do it—but it’s hard to deny that the guy has helmed some incredible projects. Just last year he did albums for A Thousand Horses, Jason Isbell, Anderson East, and the megaton atomic bomb that was Chris Stapleton’s Traveller. He’s worked with Sturgill, he’s worked with Jamey, he’s worked with Shooter, and he even got his own record label—Low Country Sound—out of being That Dude.
His label’s second release—the first was East’s under-noticed debut Delilah—is Southern Family, a compilation concept album that aims to paint a portrait of the experience of the modern family, from divorces, to sitting around a dinner table, to kids being born and grandparents being buried. Cobb says the album was inspired by White Mansions, a 1978 concept compilation album featuring Waylon Jennings, among others, that told the story of people serving in the Civil War. But if we’re being honest, this is Cobb’s version of Tompall Glaser’s Wanted! The Outlaws, an album that did as much to cement the legacy of the Outlaw Country movement in 1976 as any of those guys’ solo albums did. This might be an achievement in compilation albums—it’s certainly the best I’ve heard this year—but it’s also a victory lap for Cobb; the music he’s producing for country artists is strong enough of a movement to get it’s own compilation album now.
Which is not to say there aren’t considerable peaks on Southern Family; the whole comp is an exercise in ever-building expectation and execution. John Paul White from Civil Wars starts off the comp with the stunning, sparse “Simple Song,” but by the time you get to Rich Robinson—yeah the Black Crowes dude—leading a church chorus through “The Way Home” you’ve damn near forgotten everything that came before it. In between, you get Shooter Jennings doing a down-home choogler that shouts out Cheerwine (“Can You Come Over?”), Anderson East doing a Muscle Shoals-esque slamma-jamma about divorce (“Learning”), Brandy Clark delivering the most emotional song on the whole album, a song about her grandpa dying and her grandma being alone (“I Cried”), Jamey Johnson doing a song about avoiding putting his shoes on his mom’s table (“Mama’s Table”), and Chris Stapleton’s wife Morgane doing “You Are My Sunshine” with him in the background. Some superstars show up too: Zac Brown delivers an ode to his mee-maw (“Grandma’s Garden”), and Miranda Lambert makes a case for her being able to dominate the alt-country sound if she wants on “Sweet By and By.” This is, unlike the Avengers movies, a rare case of a group of superpowers teaming up that actually works, and is something better than the individuals as a whole.
Southern Family hasn’t set the world on fire or anything—it came out last month and it took me till now to really listen to it, and I am firmly in the wheelhouse for stuff like this—but it’s another entry in Cobb’s ballooning sphere of domination. Cobb set out to make an album that chronicles southern family life, but he really succeeded in chronicling where Dave Cobb is in 2016: on the top of his craft.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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