Coming into 2016 there was no album with more hype and anticipation than the Southern Family concept album. How could you not be excited for it? The entire album was conceived and produced by Dave Cobb (as well as being released via his own label Elektra Records), the man behind some of the hottest and most critically acclaimed albums in country and Americana over the past few years. He especially became a talked about name in music after producing Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free and Chris Stapleton’s Traveller in 2015. Isbell’s album went number one in four different genres, won two Grammys and we awarded it Album of the Year. Stapleton’s album was universally praised, dominated the 2015 CMA Awards and racked up a couple of Grammys too. Throw in the all-star cast of artists set to take part on the Southern Family album and it’s pretty easy to see why there was so much for hype for it. So after all of this buildup and anticipation, does Southern Family live up to the expectations? For the most part, it absolutely does and features some absolute stunning performances.
Southern Family begins with “Simple Song,” a reflecting and somber song. John Paul White, the former one half of the Civil Wars, performs the song and fits perfectly with it. His voice really adds desperate emotion to the song that lifts it to another level and really allows the listener to connect with it. Jason Isbell follows up with “God Is A Working Man.” Isbell explores the relationship southerners have with God, family and working hard. It very much encapsulates the life of the average southerner. Fans of Isbell’s earlier material will really enjoy this one, as it definitely feels more in the vein of his earlier work. “Down Home” is about the value of home and what it truly means. It’s not about the place, but the moments and people you share it with. Cobb’s cousin Brent Cobb performs this song and I’ll admit at first I really didn’t connect with this song much, but it has grown on me with more listens. I guess this is because while a lot of this album sounds roots-y, this song sounds more mainstream.
Miranda Lambert sounds absolutely great on “Sweet By and By.” The song is about the value of family and the lessons we can learn from them. The “roots meets gospel” feel really suits the song and Lambert well. After hearing this song it confirmed what I theorized months ago when I heard about this project: Lambert needs to get Dave Cobb to produce her music. Together I think they could create truly wonderful music. If I had to pick a favorite from this album, which isn’t easy mind you, I would have to pick Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton’s “You Are My Sunshine.” As soon as the song starts playing and you hear those bluesy and dirty guitar licks, you know it’s a Stapleton song. What does surprise me though is that Morgane takes the lead on this song and is the focal point. And this is an excellent choice. Morgane absolutely gives me chills with her vocal performance and leaves me chomping at the bit for an album from her. Keep in mind this is a song everyone knows and has heard performed by countless people. Yet I think this might be the best version I’ve ever heard of the song. It’s definitive proof that Chris and Morgane Stapleton are the modern-day Johnny and June.
Zac Brown reminds us all of how great he can truly be on “Grandma’s Garden.” It can be easy to forget after his latest singles and rocky album the talent Brown possesses. It’s a really heartfelt song about a grandson learning from his grandma how to live a fulfilling and happy life and her garden serving as the metaphor. The songwriting on this song not only tells a story really well, but also stirs emotion up in the listener. Not to mention the pedal steel guitar play is tremendous. You won’t find a truer country song. “Mama’s Table” is about the value and memories a mother’s table can hold to a family. While a table is a table to some, for others it can be the family heirloom that goes from generation to generation, symbolizing the unity of a family. Again the storytelling and emotional aspects created by the songwriting is great and Jamey Johnson fits the song like a glove. It’s yet another good guest performance from Johnson as we continue to wait for a new album from him.
Southern Family maintains a pretty consistent sound throughout the album, except on “Learning.” Not a big surprise considering Americana artist Anderson East performs it and fits in the vein of his music. This is not necessarily bad, as blue-eyed soul music is very much a part of southern culture as country music. But it can be jarring for the listener after hearing roots based country for the entirety of the album. Holly Williams turns in an impressive performance on “Settle Down.” The song is about finding a person to settle down and spend the rest of your life with after a life of partying and debauchery and being able to accept the other’s faults. The acoustic based production really works well and the down-to-earth folky tone is right in Williams’ wheelhouse.
There are a lot of emotional songs throughout this album, but none more than “I Cried.” Brandy Clark sings about a woman watching her grandfather die in a hospital bed and then later having to see her grandmother struggle to live alone after her husband has died. And all she could do like any person is cry about it all. It’s one of those songs that just leave you speechless after you hear it. The song tackles death in such a simple, human and real way. It hits you like a punch straight to your gut. This is perhaps Brandy Clark’s best performance ever.
With Southern Family being inspired by the popular concept album White Mansions that featured Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter along with others, it’s only fitting their son Shooter Jennings appears on this album. He performs on “Can You Come Over?” and I have to say I’m quite surprised by how much I like it. The rocking steel guitar licks go well with his vocal performance and makes for a pretty fun song. Rich Robinson, founding member of The Black Crowes, brings the album to a close with “The Way Home.” It’s about how true southern culture is still thriving and something to celebrate. Nashville-based choir group The Settles Connection provide the vocals on the song and sound great. And how fitting is it to close this album with a gospel song? Great choice by Cobb to end the album with “The Way Home.”
After listening to Southern Family, you come away with a better understand and feeling of southern culture and lifestyle. It’s very easy to point out the problems that existed in southern culture in the past and the stigma this caused for the south is something that will remain with the culture for years to come. But it’s important to remember the redeeming qualities of the southern culture: family, friends, love, spirituality, home. All of these things southerners should rightly be proud of and point to as their defining qualities that make them great. This album celebrates southern pride with dignity and genuineness that should make any southerner smile. Cobb bringing together all of these artists who clearly understand southern culture, from both mainstream and independent realms, is not only a unifying moment for southern people, but country music in general. That’s something we can all appreciate.