For producer Dave Cobb, it always starts with the voice.
He first heard Chris Stapleton’s classic country delivery through the tinny speaker of an iPhone and was so taken he swore he’d someday work with the Kentucky-born singer. Eight years later they’re celebrating an all-genre Album of the Year nomination for Traveller at the 58th annual Grammy Awards.
He also heard something special in Jason Isbell, Anderson East, country rockers A Thousand Horses and the boy-girl harmonies of Houndmouth and HoneyHoney, and his work with all those distinct, genre-bending voices has earned him widespread critical acclaim and an additional nomination for Producer of the Year, bringing his total to four nominations at the 2016 Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles.
“I think the voice is what I look for first,” Cobb said. “Singers always. If you have a great singer, you can make a great track. I think that’s a common thing and I think another common thing in all those artists is soul. Whether it’s country or more R&B-flavored, I’m still looking for soul.”
Soul poured out of the radio as he grew up on an island off Savannah, Georgia, and out of the congregation at his family’s century-old Pentecostal church, overseen by his grandmother. He learned the hymnal first by singing the lines into memory, then joined family members in the church band after learning to play the drums at 4.
“There was always this sound in the air,” Cobb said. “I think it’s the sound of Georgia. Georgia always had that little-bit-country, little-bit-R&B thing compared to the other states, I think. Just hearing Otis Redding for the first time, he’s from Georgia. That’s super influential, even if I’m doing country. I think that is in the back of my head.”
Cobb shut that sound out as a young man, however, first heading to New York with his band The Tender Idols, then running to California where he aimed to become a rock ‘n’ roll producer, roots be damned. A few years in, he began producing Shooter Jennings, and through Jennings met bedrock country traditionalist Jamey Johnson. Cobb cut a couple of tracks on Johnson’s That Lonesome Song. It was Johnson who sat him down and convinced him that his heritage couldn’t be denied, so Cobb uprooted his family and moved to Nashville.
“I left the South to run away from it, then I came here to make country records,” Cobb said. “It makes no sense. I can’t explain it. It’s like tripping over yourself and landing on something.”
Since, Cobb has made some of the most respected and critically acclaimed albums to come out of Music City. He teamed with Johnson again, cutting seven tracks on the timeless double album The Guitar Song. He helped A Thousand Horses reach No. 1 with debut country single “Smoke.” He made Sturgill Simpson a reluctant star with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. And Jason Isbell No. 1 in three genres with rock, country and folk chart-topper Something More Than Free, up for Americana Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.
And then there was the triumphant emergence of Chris Stapleton and his acclaimed solo debut album, Traveller, also up for Country Album of the Year. Following its release in May, the album was already country music’s top-selling debut in 2015, but it made a record-setting return to the charts after Stapleton swept Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year at the CMAs and turned the affair into a dancing-in-the-aisles party during a two-song performance with Justin Timberlake. Subsequently, the album became the first to re-enter to the Billboard 200 all-genre album chart at No. 1 where it stayed for two weeks.
Cobb played guitar during the performance and was onstage to accept his trophy as the producer of the album. And now he’s headed to the Grammys with nominations in four very different categories. All because he listened to Johnson, took a chance and moved to Nashville.
“We had a good house and a good life in California and we gave it all up to follow the music,” Cobb said. “If I hadn’t moved here I wouldn’t have met Sturgill or continued to work with Jamey. I wouldn’t have landed the opportunity I had with Chris Stapleton or Jason Isbell. I followed the music. I followed the feeling.”