Brent Cobb’s latest record, “Shine On Rainy Day,” is as honest an album as you’re likely to find. He is a songwriter’s songwriter. He knows how to craft the arc of a story in a song, and I am always amazed by how much he can fit into a line. Brent is playing Newport for the first time on Friday, and we got a chance to chat with him about songwriting and the rhythms of his hometown that show up in his music.
RLR: You have described your music in the past as “rural,” not using the typical genres like “country” or “Americana.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?
BC: Well, especially that record, the sounds are sparse, there’s not a whole lot of instrumentation on it, which sounds like rural America–things are spaced out and you can hear everything individually. Lyrically, it’s very much a love letter to my home town, population 1609 people. The way those people talk around here, it’s just ruralisms; everybody has a rhythm to the way they say things. It’s the only word that pinpoints what I feel the music is on this particular album.
RLR: In listening to the album, there are a lot of kind of self-deprecating, like “solving all the problems of the world,” or “Lord knows I’m good at digging holes,” and that feels like a very cultural thing. How does that influence your music?
BC: With those two songs particularly, they’re sort of conversational. A lot of times when I write, and I grew up, again, around rural people. We’d go to the Kinchafoonee Wildlife Club on a Thursday night and there’d be a cooking going on, and then we’d play Texas Hold ‘Em and all the old timers would be sitting around. On “Digging Holes,” that line, “Lord knows I’m good at digging holes,” it’s the way that a guy, I don’t know, Mr. Waymon Taylor, who was about 75 years old, out there throwing cards, he might say, “I done done it at the house, Lord knows I’m good at digging holes.” It was the way he’d say it; it’s a little bit like cowboy poetry the way people talk around here.
RLR: I’ve heard you talk about this sense of storytelling growing up. But one of the differences between stories and songs is that you can shift the way you tell a story, but songs generally stay pretty much the same. And you’ve been out of the road with this record for a while, and I’ve heard people talk about songs evolve, especially through the coloring of a song through the instrumentation. Has that happened with you?
BC: It’s funny you bring that up. We started last year before the record came out, the first tour we did to support the album was with Anderson East. The album dropped the middle of that tour. The first show that this band and I did together was opening Chris Stapleton at Ascend in Nashville last year, right before the Anderson tour. So, Anderson and those guys have been on these last couple runs with us on Stapleton’s tour the last 3-4 weeks. So they’ve really gotten to see this band and the music evolve in a real-time sense. The first thing they said after our first show together a couple weeks ago was: “Man, it’s not even the same songs. Not even the same band. It’s turned into its own thing.” I don’t know what influences that; I’ve heard that the songs are a little more souped up. To listen to that album, most people probably wouldn’t expect a rock show. I don’t know what it is. It’s probably that longing for home.
RLR: As you talk about that, the longing for home, I think about a song like “Down Home,” which so clearly contrasts the places you have to be as a touring musician with the place you feel most comfortable. How does that conflict show up for you?
BC: In my experience, people tend to talk about whatever they miss the most. There was a guy Troy Jones, who used to write for Carnival, a music publisher I write for. He wrote a bunch of hits and a bunch of his hits were about drinking beer and alcohol. He has a song called “Pretty Good At Drinking Beer,” by Billy Currington; and another one called, “Beer is Good, God is Great, People are Crazy.” So a bunch of beer songs from a guy who’s been sober for twenty years. And I think he really wanted to have a beer.
RLR: As you mentioned, you write for Carnival. As you think about writing yourself as opposed to writing for someone else, is that process any different?
BC: I’ll tell you what, for the most part I’ve always wrote for myself and I’ve only ever had success when I was doing that, whether it be a song that was recorded by another artist that I wrote or this album. It’s always been that way. But there was a moment in time that I left the road; I did about four years of touring pretty good before this album ever came out. And then I left the road just to focus on songwriting because my wife and I had our first child. During that time, I didn’t think I’d pick the guitar back up to go on the road, and I would go in every day for about a year and a half and think, “I gotta write for someone else. I gotta get some cuts, if this is what I’m going to do and this is going to be my way for a living.” And it’s the worst catalogue of songs I’ve written in my life. And I hope no one ever hears them. I have a really hard time writing that way. A lot of people can do it, in a “one and one make two” kind of way, but I just can’t do it that way. The only way I can write is if I mean it and if it’s for me.
BC: A whole day? I never see that. I don’t know what it looks like, I’d love to see one. I guess I had two days off a couple of months ago. Usually, we tend to cram up in one hotel room, the whole band. But on these particular days, I decided to pay for my own room. What that day looked like for me was: an 18-pack of light beer, a lot of delivery food, the blind opens, a lot of coffee, and a really great song. I got a great song out of that day.
RLR: That’s the recipe. Every aspiring songwriter who reads this will go out to a hotel room with their light beer…
BC: That’s all it takes. [laughs]
RLR: You’re playing Newport this year. What has been your sense of the Festival and what are you looking forward to?
BC: Man, it just seems so American. And I didn’t know what that meant really until I left the country; and I’ve only recently done that, I’ve been to the UK and Europe. I want to say this right, but at the core, what a beautiful, romantic place America is. The Festival seems that way to me. If all of America could be the way the Festival seems, then what a wonderful place it could be. Not that it isn’t, at its core. That’s the way Newport has always seemed to me; I’ve romanticized it my whole life.
Photo Credit: Don Van Cleave