“Looking back as far as Hank Williams Sr., what those guys were doing was imitating the sound of their surroundings,” says Georgian country star Brent Cobb, pondering his essential country guitar picks.
“That’s exactly where the train beat came from,” he continues. “And it’s the same when he sings on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry - the steel guitar give you this feel of a lonesome breeze in the south. That’s the power of country guitar!
“I remember watching this old interview with Mississippi John Hurt, where he was asked how to play exactly like him and his answer was real modest, explaining, ‘The reason I play like this is because of a guy called John Henry who took a sledgehammer to drive spikes into the railroad… that’s how I play my songs.’ I thought that was beautiful, man.”
The 31 year-old Grammy-nominated maverick will be releasing his third album Providence Canyon in May, produced by his cousin Dave Cobb - whose credits include Rival Sons, Zac Brown Band and Chris Cornell.
For the recordings, “a lot of old guitars were used” because “it takes a while for them to get that warm tone” - though the singer/guitarist confesses in his experience “the cheaper the guitar, the more soul it has.”
Lead single King Of Alabama, as Cobb explains, was a product of its environment - just as all good country should be…
“We spent a lot of time touring the last record, seeing the country and playing to real big crowds, as well as really small crowds,” he admits.
“I wanted a little more gas on this album, though I honestly believe the songs come from a similar place as the first album… I think all my music comes from the same well. Obviously I was gone a lot, so most of the songs lend themselves to missing home or enjoying the road… one or the other.
“I try not to think too much about it, I try to let my heart do the talking. I had a co-writer at one point who said he couldn’t write any sad songs during that time with me, even if he was sad. That kinda stuck with me!”
It was a realisation that would help the singer-songwriter look at music in a new light and explore his emotions in less obvious ways…
“So even if I’m sad, I’ll try to write a song that makes me happy,” he chuckles.
“I think you have to mix the light with the dark. I couldn’t write a whole album of sad songs… or happy songs. That’s the way of life, sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. If you do write a serious song, it doesn’t have to be depressing. If you write a party song, it doesn’t have to be stupid.”
Here, the Georgian picks his top 10 country albums…
Providence Canyon is out on 11 May via Atlantic Records.
1. Merle Haggard - Strangers (Capitol, 1965)
“Let’s go way back to Merle Haggard’s first proper record. Not only did it influence me, but it also influenced all the music that also influenced me… so you could say he was very influential.
“There’s something magical about that opening song (My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers, which has Phil Baugh playing the acoustic intro. This was the original Strangers lineup with that Bakersfield sound - thanks to guys like Ralph Mooney and James Burton on guitar.
“Merle played the rhythms on that stuff, but whenever I think of great country guitar, it’s always the Strangers and their definitive sound.”
2. Willie Nelson - Shotgun Willie (Atlantic, 1973)
“This is such a funky little country album. Willie did a lot of the acoustic parts, of course, with some legendary guitar work from Doug Sahm - whose solo album you’ll hear about later in this list.
“I loved the way things were recorded during this era, particularly the guitars - which had this warm tone that was as conversational as the lyrics. They told the story along with the lyrics.”
3. Doug Sahm - Doug Sahm And Band (Atlantic, 1973)
“Doug was such an amazing guitar player. He had the ability to make his instrument sound incredibly personal - like he was right there in the room with you.
“On this album, he had Bob Dylan come down and play guitar on Your Friends, as well as Charlie Owens playing steel guitar elsewhere. There are so many things I like about this beautiful sounding record, it’s almost hard definite exactly what it is that makes it so special.”
4. Waylon Jennings - The Ramblin’ Man (RCA, 1974)
“This is another album with Ralph Mooney on pedal steel - he’s probably my favourite steel guitarist. I just think his stuff was out of space, man!
“Cloudy Days is one of my favourite tracks, along with the live version of Rainy Day Woman which has some crazy steel guitar stuff on it.
“The way Waylon played guitar made it sound like he was talking, it was completely his own phrasing and just amazing to hear. Like a lot of these records, this was important because it influenced everybody that came after.”
5. Steve Earle - Guitar Town (MCA, 1986)
“I remember hearing this growing up because my dad had it on cassette tape and used to play it. I was really drawn to that baritone guitar and loved how it had its own narrative.
“You could almost listen to this record without any vocals or lyrics and it would be the exact same kind of story, told purely through music… which is clearly something I seem to like!”
6. Dwight Yoakam - Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (Reprise, 1986)
“This had Pete Anderson on guitar and goes back to that Bakersfield sound. I don’t know what my deal is listening to Californian country being from Georgia, but there’s just something about how they played their guitars that makes you feel!
“The combination of those gritty Telecaster tones and warm acoustics is a winning formula. I love the title track; it’s probably my favourite despite being a well-known song. I hate to not be super-hip and name something more obscure, but it’s a really great track!”
7. Garth Brooks - Garth Brooks (Capitol Nashville, 1989)
“This might take away some of my cool cred, but I don’t care! I grew up with this album.
“Bruce Bouton was the steel player on this record. I remember hearing Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old) in the car with my dad, how it opened up with this really crisp acoustic guitar sound… it was so '90s.
“My dad actually pulled over onto the side of the road, wondering who the hell is this. I was just a kid at the time. But thinking about it, that moment influenced me to write songs today… it’s the reason why I got into the marriage of guitars and lyrics.”
8. Lynyrd Skynyrd - Gimme Back My Bullets (MCA, 1978)
“I want options 8, 9 and 10 to be this! It influenced everything, thanks to the partnership of Allen Collins and Gary Rossington.
“I think from that first Garth Brooks album, there was a lot of stuff coming out with the same session guys involved - Brent Mason played on every damn thing through the decade - but from 1996 onwards, I feel country music as a whole has been ripping Lynyrd Skynyrd off.
“This particular album has the title track, Every Mother’s Son, Trust, Double Trouble, Cry For The Bad Man… all of those riffs are blues-based. All I Can Do Is Write About It is more of a country song, as it’s mainly acoustic guitar and mandolin. I grew up with this record probably more than any others on this list!”
9. Jerry Reed - Cookin’ (RCA Victor, 1970)
“Honestly, anything by Jerry Reed is great - but this album for me has always been especially amazing. It has Alabama Jubilee on it, which is a great track.
“I always loved his claw picking, it was sort of Chet Atkins style - though Chet was a bit cleaner. He attacked his guitar in a very special way; I always loved the sound of the gutstring on a lot of his albums.”
10. Roger Miller - King Of The Road: The Genius Of Roger Miller (Mercury, 1995)
“He’s such a great instrumentalist, it doesn’t even matter what the instrument is. The first release of his I got was this boxset called The Genius Of Roger Miller, which had about 70 or 80 songs on it. It’s not a standalone album - there’s a ton of songs on there.
“Just go back and listen to the acoustic guitars on Dang Me! and you’ll see what I mean. Another song to check out is Lock Stock & Teardrops, which was recorded around 1964. It may have been the first time a talkbox was ever used - in a country song! There’s a whole verse sung by the guitars…”