Brent Cobb is keeping alive the tradition of the true singer/songwriter – an observer of society who doesn’t back down from providing some pointed commentary. Cobb likes to dive deep, and he does so on his new album, Keep ‘Em on They Toes, out now. A cursory glance at just a few of the song titles from the album gives you a hint of what Cobb is up to with his music. There’s the already-acclaimed anthem “Shut Up and Sing,” a timely song if ever one existed, along with “The World Is Ending,” to list the most glaringly prominent. All would seem applicable to the current malady of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreak of social unrest across the country. The kicker is that these were written well before any of those events occurred. Perhaps he should be the guy picking your fantasy football team.
Actually, Cobb, like any skilled writer, simply pays attention to what’s happening around him. And he’s getting some favorable feedback for his sharply-observed views. Cobb notes, for example, that considerable buzz surrounded “Shut Up and Sing” after its single release in August. “It got some really positive reviews,” Cobb says. “People were talking about it.” The tune seemed to fit the times, as some fans, mainly through social media, took up the mantra as a way of admonishing entertainers to keep their political views to themselves. “That all started with The Chicks a few years ago,” Cobb begins. “People were telling them to ‘shut up and sing’ when they made comments about the President [George W. Bush]. I have heard that said over the years about artists and songwriters, and then it resurfaced with everything that’s going on now. But I actually wrote the song in December of last year.”
In the song, Cobb takes issue with the notion that entertainers should refrain from sharing their political and worldly views, as listeners want escapism, not an extra dose of reality. The chorus advises, Let’s take these blinders off our eyes and pull the cotton from our ears/Till somebody says somethin’ that means something/I’ll shut up and sing. In other words, singers and songwriters have an obligation to speak up for others through their music. Art should not be silenced just because it may be uncomfortable to some.
Another selection, “The World Is Ending,” could easily sum up society’s gloom-and-doom reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that song dates back to 2011, when Cobb wrote it as a reaction to those who predicted an apocalyptic end to the planet when the Mayan calendar ran out in 2012. “People do ask me about it, because of COVID-19,” Cobb says with a gentle laugh. “At that time when I wrote it, people were getting hysterical. Now, you hear some saying that the pandemic is a sign that the world is coming to an end. So, it’s like, here we go again.”
Cobb delivers each tune in a clear, conversational style that hearkens back to the folk era. It calls to mind echoes of Dylan, or perhaps Woody Guthrie, even Merle Haggard, and certainly those influences are present. But most of all, Cobb credits his mom for the way he sings. “I’ve had the same voice since I was about 12,” Cobb notes. “I was always trying to figure out how to use it. When I was about 17 or 18, mom said to sing like I was talking to somebody. That has worked for me.”
Family continues to play a vital part in Cobb’s career, and certainly on the new record. You need look no further than the title tune, written by Cobb and his wife Layne. Shadowing “Shut Up and Sing,” the song aims at meddlesome intruders who seem to bask in telling others how they should live and think. Cobb offers some savvy counsel on dealing with that particular ill – pay no attention and keep them guessing. The best thing you can do is don’t listen too close/Walk on to your own beat/Keep ‘em on they toes, advises Cobb. “It’s the first song that was written for the album,” he says. “I started the song thinking about my son growing up and trying to pass along some wisdom. I asked my wife if she wanted to write this song together and it turned out to be a great collaboration.” And yes, “they” toes is no misprint. Cobb explains that it’s how people talk in his neck of the woods in his native Georgia.
For “Soap Box,” Cobb enlisted another close family member, his dad Patrick, as co-writer. That’s only appropriate, as Cobb will gladly relate how his father’s love of music and songwriting just naturally trickled down to him. “My dad has been a major influence on me,” Cobb says. “He was more of a ’50s and ’60s kind of guy as far as his music taste, but he was always about songwriters. I took a lot from that. He loved songwriters like Mac Davis and Roger Miller.” In “Soap Box,” Cobb lets loose on society’s cynicism and snarkiness, right from the opening lines, Well, the crowd goes crazy when catastrophe strikes/Nobody’s feelings seem to come out right/Talk is cheap and common sense ain’t commonly found. Cobb states his belief that if we could all just get off the “soap box,” we’d likely be much better off. “Soap Box” also features a backing vocal from Americana favorite Nikki Lane, who provides the right touches of snap and spark. “I knew I wanted somebody on that song, and I thought that she would be perfect,” Cobb recalls.
After stints in Nashville and Los Angeles, Cobb moved back to Georgia about ten years ago. During his time in Music City, Cobb became buddies with a fellow Georgian named Luke Bryan. The two got back together, after a long dry spell, to co-write “Good Times and Good Lovin’,” another selection from the album. “We stayed in touch but couldn’t find the time to write together,” Cobb explains. “We wrote this one last year. Luke also plays piano on the song, and he does a really nice piano solo on it. I’ve always enjoyed listening to him on piano, but I don’t think people realize how beautifully he plays.”
With little doubt, 2020 will be one for the history books and archives, with its powerhouse punches of COVID-19 and social upheaval. “It’s been a little different,” Cobb says in an understated, rather laconic tone. “But you know, things could always be worse. Maybe after all this, everything will turn back around. We’ll realize that we’re really not so different and we can all get along.”