Atlanta’s installment of the ExploreGeorgia.org Songwriter Series on Wed., Sept. 21, 2016 at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center brings together a trio of performers who arrived at their success via decidedly different paths. And it’s precisely that diversity of experience that should make the evening fascinating.
The three artists—longtime Atlanta favorite Michelle Malone, Athens-based mainstay Randall Bramblett and Ellaville, Georgia native Brent Cobb—will perform “in the round.” This means they will appear on stage together—not necessarily collaborating, but taking turns sharing their compositions and the stories behind them. Malone loves the spontaneity of this format. “It’s better than following a setlist,” she tells me by phone just before a show in New York City. “I might come with a plan to play certain songs, then I get inspired or reminded of a connection by something I hear on stage.”
After a major label dalliance in the early 90s Malone formed her own record company and has been forging an independent trail ever since. A frequent guest on Indigo Girls albums (with whom she’s also co-written), Malone’s primary focus is songs in her own voice. “I write for myself first and foremost,” she explains. “I write when I feel like it, when I’m passionate about it. 98% of the songs I do are mine, the rest are either songs I wrote with others, or the occasional Beatles cover or something. If it works out beyond that (such as her recordings winding up in TV series like True Blood and Dawson’s Creek), great.”
Bramblett concurs on the “write for yourself” philosophy. “A few times in the past I’ve tried to write songs for other artists—I haven’t had much luck with that approach. I seem to write better songs when I just concentrate on writing an original piece that I can connect to, that I feel is authentic,” he tells me. “I think if it’s a good song, someone will pick up on it eventually.” His extensive credits writing for Bonnie Raitt and Delbert McClinton, among others, certainly attest to that notion.
Bramblett’s roots in the music business stretch back to the 1970s, when he began as a sideman for the likes of Greg Allman and Traffic, and played a key role in jazz-rock trailblazers Sea Level. His first album as a frontman dates to 1975, but most of Bramblett’s solo catalog is from 2001 forward, when he joined forces with New West Records. “Knowing the company was invested in me gave me the confidence and obligation to focus on my solo work. The balancing act today is just between life’s everyday demands and the need to write and record.”
While Malone claims not to know what the term “singer-songwriter” means (“I think of myself as a ‘performing musician,’” she counters), Brent Cobb turns the phrase on its head and declares himself a “songwriter-singer.” Unlike the veterans with whom he’ll share the Callanwolde stage, Cobb first made his mark penning material for other top-tier performers. “I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” he explains in a deep drawl befitting his upbringing in Ellaville (population 1600, roughly 45 minutes west of Columbus). ”That could have been as an author, though.”
Growing up in a musical family Cobb spent his youth in bands, playing locally “wherever they would have us.” An odd twist of fate occurred at a family funeral, where Brent met an until-then unknown to him cousin, Dave Cobb. “We had heard he was some sort of record producer, but we were kind of skeptical,” Brent admits with a chuckle. Then he learned Dave worked with Shooter Jennings, who had recently released one of Brent’s favorite albums, and the bond was sealed.
Dave took a shine to Brent’s six-song demo and invited him out to LA to record. “I had never been on an airplane before, and I had never been to California,” he recalls. Although the resulting album, 2006’s No Place Left to Leave, wasn’t a big seller, it became Brent’s calling card. Fellow Georgian Luke Bryan liked what he heard and invited Cobb to Nashville—soon enough, Brent was writing for and touring with not only Bryan but Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Kellie Pickler and other leading country lights.
Although he made another EP in the interim, “All I really wanted to do was get back to record with Dave again,” to augment his writing success, Brent confesses. “And with Southern Family, we suddenly had that opportunity.” Southern Family is Dave Cobb’s highly regarded compilation of country artists moving the genre in exciting directions, on which Brent’s song “Down Home” has been singled out for praise. “Plus I took two years off the road to be a daddy,” Brent adds. This provided the bandwidth for the cousins to pursue what became Brent’s second full-length album, which they tackled with no deal in place and therefore no pressure or specific expectations.
The fruits of their labor, Shine On Rainy Day, will be released just days after the Callanwolde show on Dave’s Elektra Records imprint Low Country Sounds. “They say Nashville is a ten year town, that it takes ten years to become an overnight success,” Brent remarks. During the process, he realized exactly ten years had passed between his two albums.
“It’s the kind of album I like to listen to, where it feels like you’re reading someone else’s stories,” according to Brent. Speaking of which, the idea of sharing those stories is central to the “in the round” experience—without giving away too much. “I think they have different meanings to different people,” says Malone of her songs. “If there’s a specific story behind a song I don’t mind telling it, but I like the element of mystery, keeping the subjectivity out there.” Bramblett concurs. “My songs are usually not that straight forward and are definitely open to interpretation. That can be a good thing but it can also just be evidence of just hitting a dead end lyrically and taking the easy, vague way out,” he adds with healthy self-deprecation.
With three artists who have devoted their lives to conveying such emotions, no one is taking the easy way out.
The ExploreGeorgia.org Songwriter Series continues through December 2, with remaining stops in Albany on Oct. 7, Dahlonega and Macon. Tickets for the Atlanta show area are $15 in advance, available here, and $20 at the door.