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Music Producer Dave Cobb Goes from Outsiders to Influencers

  • Associated Press

Music producer Dave Cobb poses in the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee, Jan. 29, 2016.

Music producer Dave Cobb poses in the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee, Jan. 29, 2016.

Producer Dave Cobb sits on a couch in the cavernous RCA Studio A, a 50-year-old studio on Music Row that was due to be razed to the ground less than two years ago to make room for luxury condos.

Preservationists stepped in at the last minute to save the building developed by country legend Chet Atkins where Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson have all recorded. In April, Cobb will become the new in-house producer at Studio A and he looks like a kid in a candy shop.

"There are some guitars you pick up and they have songs in them and you can't put them down," Cobb said. "And this is a space that does that. You're in here and it just inspires you."

Cobb got his start working with outsider Country artists pushed aside as the trend moved to a slicker, pop and R&B-influenced Country sound. But it was Cobb's work with Americana darling Jason Isbell and breakout Country singer Chris Stapleton that turned him into Nashville's hottest producer.

Cobb is nominated for non-classical producer of the year and album of the year for Stapleton's "Traveller'' at this year's Grammy Awards.

"Well, nobody calls me for hit singles," Cobb said. "I think if I was probably doing super pop stuff, I think I would feel a ton of pressure. But I think people just call me to make honest records, so that I can do.''

The Savannah, Georgia-native got his start as a producer in Los Angeles working with Waylon Jennings' son, Shooter, on his 2005 album, "Put the 'O' Back in Country.'' Jennings introduced him to Jamey Johnson, and the two worked together on Johnson's 2008 album "That Lonesome Song,'' and his critically acclaimed 2010 double album, "The Guitar Song.''

As Cobb's circle of artist friends grew, he moved back to Nashville in 2011 to start a home studio.

"I just fell in love with the music scene,'' Cobb said. "I just felt like Nashville right now is maybe where London was in the '60s and L.A. was in the '70s. It feels like this is music mecca.''

What followed was a string of career-defining records for Cobb. He broke genre lines with Kentucky-bred singer Sturgill Simpson on his 2014 psychedelic honky-tonk record "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.'' Isbell's raw post-rehab album, "Southeastern,'' swept the 2014 Americana Music Awards and their 2015 follow-up, "Something More Than Free,'' is also nominated for best Americana album this year at the Grammys.

He found his biggest commercial success with the long-haired Stapleton, who had written hits for Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney. The former bluegrass singer cut his debut solo album with Cobb in Studio A, but he struggled to get any radio play with his bluesy, Country soul record when it was released last May.

All that changed on the night of the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 4, when pop star Justin Timberlake and Stapleton jammed for nearly 8 minutes on national television and Stapleton won album of the year, male vocalist and new artist of the year awards.

After the show, Stapleton's record jumped from nowhere to No. 1 on Billboard's 200 chart. Soon after, the award nominations came rolling in for Stapleton, including four Grammy nominations and five Academy of Country Music Award nominations.

"I can't believe it's had the impact that it has,'' Cobb said. "Especially because there was no angling for any of this. That's what is so great about this. It was done out of purity and honesty. To see commercial success behind that was really gratifying.''

Now even mainstream Country artists are eager to work with him. Cobb is releasing an all-star concept record called "Southern Family,'' on March 18, which features Cobb's ever growing musical family, including Jennings, Johnson, Isbell, Stapleton and his wife, Morgane, as well as artists he's never worked with like Brandy Clark and Miranda Lambert.

Singer John Paul White, formerly of the Grammy-winning country duo The Civil Wars, recorded a new song, "Simple Song,'' for the upcoming album and said Cobb's relationship with artists is what makes him distinctive.

"I think Dave is just making records for himself,'' White said by email. "He's incredibly knowledgeable about gear, he's mindful of vibe and feel, and has studied production technique to the nth degree. He takes that info and makes records that he would want to buy. He works with artists that he would want to listen to. Strangely, that makes him unique.''

The Grammy Awards will be presented in Los Angeles on Feb. 15.

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