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    Nashville’s cool kids have a partner in Dave Cobb

    Producer Dave Cobb
    Mark Zaleski/AP/file
    Producer Dave Cobb

    When Dave Cobb returned to Georgia several years ago for his grandmother’s funeral, some members of his extended family rode him pretty hard. “What’s up, Hollywood?” they teased.

    Cobb, who grew up in Savannah, had left home for Atlanta, where he joined a British-influenced rock band. When the group’s prospects fizzled, he hit the road for Southern California, where he’d been offered a job as an in-house record producer.

    “But the guy disappeared on me,” says Cobb. “I was stuck, and I had to figure out how to make a living.”


    He’s managed that and then some, surprising himself in the process — by returning to the Southern roots he thought he’d left behind. In the past few years he’s established himself as one of Nashville’s most sought-after producers, building a new-traditionalist alternative to modern country’s high gloss with a growing roster of critical favorites, including Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton, who headlines the Xfinity Center on Friday.

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    “I still wake up every day like I did before — ‘Am I gonna have a job next week?’ ” says Cobb, on the phone from Nashville. “I think that’s what makes me work so hard. I’m never content. It never feels real.”

    Cobb credits his long friendship with Shooter Jennings, son of the country great Waylon, for bringing him back around to the kind of down-home music he grew up resisting. His parents, he says, listened to ’80s-era commercial country, which didn’t much appeal to him. Neither did the old-time Pentecostal songs of his grandmother’s church, where she ministered and played piano in a band that also featured pedal steel guitar.

    As a boy, he didn’t like okra or turnip greens, either: “I wanted pizza and Chinese food,” he says with a laugh. Now in his 40s, he has learned to appreciate “the things that feel like home, like a warm blanket to me. It took going to California to figure it out.”

    After producing a couple of albums for his friend Jennings, Cobb began working with Jamey Johnson, a no-nonsense ex-Marine and through-and-through country singer from Alabama. Their success together opened the door to more auspicious releases, including Isbell’s “Southeastern,” a set of vignettes that packed the emotional wallop of a tightly wound collection of short stories, and Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” which combined outlaw conventions with some truly maverick, mind-bending arrangements.


    Two years ago the Kentucky native Stapleton released his debut album, “Traveller,” after spending several years behind the scenes as a prolific publishing-house songwriter. With his big, soulful baritone, Stapleton won the Grammy for best country album and carted off a bushel of prizes at the 2016 Academy of Country Music Awards. Cobb’s dance card has been waiting-list-only ever since.

    If there’s a common bond among the artists he works with, it’s that they’re all “100 percenters,” Cobb says. “They’re in it all the time.” His latest find, a fresh-faced old soul from Canada named Colter Wall, is another God-given talent who’s not “angling,” Cobb says — he has no Plan B beyond songwriting.

    Two of Cobb’s recent projects have involved Boston-area performers: the songwriter Lori McKenna, a “masterful lyricist” who is “one of my favorite hangs — so funny, so full of happiness,” and Lake Street Dive, the pop-soul New England Conservatory alums who were “magical” in the studio, he says.

    “It is a joy working with Dave. He always simplifies it all down to the song,” writes McKenna in an e-mail about her experience recording 2016’s “The Bird & the Rifle” with Cobb. “In my case, I don’t love being in the studio, and Dave would make sure I didn’t overthink everything. I just trusted his work 100 percent — it felt to me like my songs were made for his creative process.”

    There’s a lot more variety to Cobb’s producing portfolio than might appear on first glance. By his own account, the records he makes encompass not just country but blues, folk, “a lot of birth-of-rock stuff. It’s the fabric of American music. I’m happy whatever they call it as long as people can discover a new artist. They can call it polka, I don’t care.”


    The one thing Cobb brings to every session, he says, is an open mind. A little over a year ago, he attended a tribute to the late Sam Phillips, the Sun Records producer who begat the rockabilly canon of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the rest. He recalls one of Phillips’s sons discussing how his father “would walk into Sun with really no plan, and leave with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ these legendary, classic songs.”

    ‘I think I walk in cold every day. There’s really no premeditation to any of these records.’

    That sounded about right to Cobb. “I think I walk in cold every day,” he says. “There’s really no premeditation to any of these records.” Planning arrangements before the recording begins, he says, is “like planning a painting — I think it’s [expletive].”

    The only manipulating he does involves his conscious effort to create a scene around his musical associates. Whenever possible, he says, he’d like to stoke a mutually supportive creative crossroads like the ones that produced the bands of the British Invasion or the singer-songwriting community of Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s.

    “My evil master plan is to try to make everyone friends with each other,” Cobb says.

    On Friday, Stapleton’s opening acts will be two more Cobb collaborators: Anderson East, the R&B singer who has been dating Miranda Lambert, and Brent Cobb, who is the producer’s “little” cousin.

    They first met at Cobb’s grandma’s funeral, when Brent was still in high school. Brent’s father gave Dave a copy of his son’s demo tape.

    “I didn’t want to play it,” Cobb admits, “but my wife put it on in the rental car on the way back to Atlanta, and I was knocked out.” Naturally, they made an album together.

    Chris Stapleton

    At the Xfinity Center, Mansfield, July 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets $30-$105,

    James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.