Dave Cobb is saving country music, or so they say. Cobb, who has been producing records in Nashville for the past decade, has been the common thread behind a high number of the artists–Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson–that have been lauded over the past few years for salvaging country music from its worst impulses. It follows, then, that Dave Cobb must be the latest in a long line of anointed prophets saving country music from itself, a torch-bearer of authenticity fighting for old-fashioned musical values in the face of crass commercialization.
Southern Family, a concept record by assorted artists that is serving as Cobb’s inaugural release on his prestigious Elektra Records imprint, reveals the cracks in the walls of such a tired narrative. It was bound to happen. Just as T Bone Burnett long ago became a near-meaningless mark of roots authenticity on any project he touched, these days Cobb’s name is also getting stamped on just about every other singer-songwriter release, from Mary Chapin Carpenter to Lake Street Dive to Chris Isaak.
It’s some surprise, though, that the first Cobb misstep would be a record as promising as Southern Family. The premise is simple enough: gather Nashville’s traditionalist vanguard together to sing personal songs about their ancestral roots and sense of home. The artists involved are reason enough to get excited: Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, Zac Brown, John Paul White, and Holly Williams join Cobb standbys like Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, and Morgane and Chris Stapleton.
Many of these artists have earned reputations through their unwillingness to succumb to the feel-good cliches of carefree Southern living that Nashville can rely on to a fault. Why then, given a subject matter as personal and rife with relatable material as family, do most of the stories told on Southern Family feel so uniformly polished and lifeless?
Miranda Lambert, who has sung about family and sense of place with poignant nuance before, delivers a laundry list of rural niceties set to pedal steel on “Sweet By and By,” arriving at a tepid Hallmark conclusion: “Family’s the light that guides us.” On “Grandma’s Garden” and “Mama’s Table,” Zac Brown and Jamey Johnson deliver respective ode’s to familial touchstones so pious in their nostalgia that they end up suffocating in their own reverence.
The cuddly feelings can get relentless, whether it’s Brent Cobb (Dave’s cousin) singing couplets set like, “Down home, everybody’s got one/Down home, the place that you come from” behind a half-baked country-funk groove or Anderson East ruining an otherwise promising premise–a father imparting on his son subtle lessons of masculinity–when he soul-shouts a chorus as emotionally empty as, “It takes a man to teach a man/I thank the lord for his guiding hand.” By the time Shooter Jennings gets his turn, it’s hard not to hear his celebratory refrain (“sunshine, chilled wine, suppertime and nursery rhymes”) as an exercise in “country songs about family’ madlibs.
Southern Family feels, above all else, like a dishonest record, one more interested in convincing you how great family is than actually portraying its gloriously messy, beautiful imperfections. In Cobb’s Southern Family, parents don’t raise their voices in front of their children. Fathers don’t have a hard time talking to their sons. Mothers don’t get exhausted. Siblings don’t fight with each other in the backseat of the car. Kids never curse off or make fun of their elders. Instead, they treat them like stoic folk heroes and eulogize their gardens.
That’s not to say there aren’t several worthwhile high points and moments of unexpected tenderness to be found. John Paul White and Brandy Clark provide the most affecting contributions, tackling death head-on with a pair of quivering ballads about grief and survival. Jason Isbell turns a folksy remembrance of a preaching grandfather into a meditation that comically ponders God’s blue-collar cred. Finally, Holly Williams provides the album’s emotional focal point with her tale of a single mother trying to reconcile her rambling tendencies with the responsibility of raising her baby daughter. But those moments are too far and few between.
Part of the problem may just be Cobb’s preference for sleek sophistication, stripping any back-porch spontaneity that might’ve helped make some of these songs more convincing. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of expectations for a high-concept side-project for which these artists have little incentive to use their best material. Indeed, most of these singers have sang and written about family far more convincingly on their most recent records. But the flaws of Southern Family also feel like a warning call, a moment where one of the most exciting movements in country music could be in danger of falling victim to the shortcomings it’s supposed to be railing against. Listen below.
Southern Family is out 3/18 via Elektra Records.