More than a concept album, Dave Cobb's 2016 compilation Southern Family is a clarion call: the definition of a new south for a new millennium. This new south -- one with a reverence for the past, as defined by old tunes and handed-down traditions, but one unbeholden to conventions -- has been essayed by Cobb on his productions for Jamey Johnson, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson, records that refurbish outlaw country for a new century. Outlaw itself looked toward the past, stripping back Nashville productions to their bare, burly bones, but Cobb's sensibility goes slightly further, treating that intersection of country tradition and rock modernism as ground zero. On the acclaimed albums by Johnson, Stapleton, and Simpson, this manifests in an easy swagger, but Southern Family is understated, a series of vignettes that combine to form an Americana mosaic. Much of the record plays like quiet confessions -- songs that feel whispered as much as sung -- but it's impossible to convey the south without tapping into the deep reservoirs of soul, blues, and gospel, sounds that give the album an underpinning of earthiness. It takes a while for those tunes to get there, though. Southern Family crawls into focus with John Paul White's "Simple Song" and Jason Isbell's "God Is a Working Man," tunes that function as keynotes for the album. The album is devised of nothing but songs that seem simple but are slyly layered, something Isbell's tune makes plain: the clean lines camouflage how he plays and inverts conventions, turning the traditional fresh. It's a trick repeated throughout the album, usually done so subtly, the impact is felt more than recognized (an exception to the rule is a bluesy crawl through "You Are My Sunshine" by Morgane and Chris Stapleton). Certain themes are cycled through -- usually family, loss, and love, sometimes arriving in a tangled ball -- but what resonates on Southern Family is how each singer/songwriter is faithful to their own voice within the grander tapestry Cobb has devised. It's a trick that telegraphs just how rich and complex this modern Southern Family actually is.
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