Album Review – Dave Cobb’s ‘Southern Family’

Dave-Cobb-Southern-Family

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.

Grade: 10/10

 

 

Album Review – A Thousand Horses’ ‘Southernality’ Shows Glimpses of Southern Rock Potential

New country band, A Thousand Horses, formed back in 2010 and actually had a debut album released with DGC/Intersope Records. After that, the band signed with Republic Nashville in 2014 after the label’s president, Jimmy Harnen, listened to the band. Signing with the a major label certainly helped the band as their debut single, “Smoke,” topped the Country Airplay chart this year. Lead man Michael Hobby, and his band of Bill Satcher, Zach Brown, and Graham Deloach don’t necessarily build on the country sounds of “Smoke,” but bring forth a light, fun-loving southern rock approach to their major label debut, Southernality.

Immediately from the opening guitar riff of “First Time” you can hear the southern rock influence. A few seconds later, when the whole band kicks in, you might confuse this with a Black Crowes song. The keyboard guitar melody coming awfully close to the Black Crowes hit, “Jealous Again.” Here, A Thousand Horses rock out and sing of the single, one-night stand life until there’s a woman who steals his heart. “Heaven is Close” shows a bit more depth in the writing. It’s a song about finding freedom in the open road with the one you love. A Thousand Horses find a bit more originality in their sound, too, with the production on this track. “Heaven is Close” builds nicely from an acoustic first verse all the way to a polished electric guitar solo and a gospel like choir backing up Hobby’s vocals.

As Josh wrote about in his review for the band’s lead single, “Smoke,” the song was extremely safe and radio friendly with no edge or risks taken. And with the song squeezed between two fast paced southern rockers on the album, it doesn’t help the case for “Smoke” to stand out. “Travelin’ Man” carries an interesting production. The verses are well paced with the guitars and inclusion of a harmonica creating a western cowboy feel, but that’s abandoned with the sped up, chaotic chorus of heavy guitars and drums. The “Travelin’ Man” Hobby sings about is himself, tearing from town to town and how it’s hard to love this kind of guy.

“Tennessee Whiskey” is a more country, heartbreak song. His woman left him in South Texas, and he pines for Tennessee whiskey to calm his broken heart help get her off his mind. The song somewhat chronicles a journey from El Paso to Tennessee while he sings to the whiskey. The combination of steel guitars and electric guitars works well to create nice production for this countrified power ballad. I mentioned earlier that the first song of album had some sonic similarities to the Black Crowes. Well, A Thousand Horses wrote “Sunday Morning” with Rich Robinson, guitarist from the Black Crowes. It’s no surprise that this song also carries similarities to that band. The gospel like combination of rock and country in the chorus is fitting with the context of a woman who struggles to find joy, even with a Bible right in front of her. It’s a passionate song, and one of the album’s top tracks.

The title track is a clichéd country rock song about being from the south. At the first line, I knew exactly what was in store for us with this song, and I was ready to just skip ahead: “Yes sir, yes ma’am, talk with a drawl.” It’s just another list of how southern people are. “We say what we mean, gonna carve it stone. Yeah, these roots run deep down this old dirt road.” For being the shortest track on Southernality, it sure seemed like the longest. “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial” is a rather safe pop country song. It’s a song about calling up an ex girlfriend and pining for one last chance to make things right between them. The production and melody sound familiar, very similar to “Smoke.” This song is also slated to be the band’s next radio single, with an official release at the end of the month. Even with all the southern rock available to choose from, it looks like A Thousand Horses will be sticking with safe pop country for the radio charts.

“Landslide” is a southern rock anthem about being your own man. The first verse includes a slight at controlling label executives who “couldn’t hum a tune if it hit him in the eye.” But it’s not so much of a protest song as it is a prideful anthem of being yourself in the face of others who want you to do things their way. However, ironically, it relies on clichéd country buzzwords like “southern soul” and “dirt roads” to describe where their identity and attitude comes from. “Back To Me” is a more acoustic ballad where Hobby sings of longing for his girl back. She’s run off to chase her dreams and he feels that he can set her heart free.

“Trailer Trashed” is about…you probably guessed it. It’s a prideful, rocking anthem about hillbillies partying. The song is shallow, and there’s not much more to say. It’s a song I wouldn’t be surprised to hear The Cadillac Three sing. “Hell On My Heart” is another power ballad where Hobby sings of the pain of loneliness and guilt. She left him without any answers, but it’s suggested that his reckless way of life that caused her to leave. He wants to try to change to get her back, because her leaving is hell on his heart. Southernality concludes with a pop country ode to a small town, hometown called “Where I’m Going.” It’s the place where everyone knows everyone, where there’s only one red light and one radio station. It’s a typical coming back home song and loving the simple things about it.

Just like their first major label single, A Thousand Horses’ major label debut album is rather middle of the road. It rises and falls from one track to the next. Southernality has moments where the band has some great, original material, and other times where they rely too much on cliché lyrics and stories. The production is slick, polished, and balances the rock and roll with country nicely. Michael Hobby’s vocals are a nice fit with the southern rocking melodies. Overall, Southernality just bounces too much between clichéd country rock and more original artistry. You usually get a little of everything in debut albums like this, in an attempt to see what fans gravitate towards. So we may have to wait for another album or EP before we can really see if A Thousand Horses is a great new addition to southern rock, or if they’re just a loud, noisey country rocking band spitting out clichés and fluff. It’s hard to tell from Southernality.

Grade: 5.5/10