One reason it's hard to fully understand Southern rock until you've actually lived in the South is that its rhythms mirror a particular experience: choogling down the road way past the Mason-Dixon line. The highways in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana are somehow different than other rural thoroughfares. They meander, even when they're doing nothing but cutting through forest. They gently slope and curve, offering tantalizing glimpses of lovely lake-and-river vistas, but rarely the whole thing. Unlike the Midwest's endless plains or the Southwest's sublime skies, the characteristic of Southern geography impart a cozy feeling: with the piney woods gathering near, you always feel like you might be one turn from home. That's why there's a lyrical quality to even the most aggressive songs by the Allman Brothers Band or The Black Crowes. The bass and drums maneuver deftly, like the weave of a truck in the passing lane; the guitars jump and bubble like humidity turning into rain on the windshield.
Brent Cobb's latest song, "King of Alabama," is a choogling song about a road dog who's moved on to the next astral plane; it seems like its theme might serve a larger concept driving the Nashville singer-songwriter's next album, Providence Canyon, which he's just announced will be May 11 on Low Country Sound. Cobb's first release from the upcoming album was an anthem for the working musician; his latest pays tribute to one guitar-wielding night laborer who was a friend and mentor to Cobb before his untimely death in 2013.
Wayne Mills grew up in Arab, Ala., and played for the Crimson Tide before coming to Nashville; a favorite of hardcore country fans throughout the South, he headlined shows that future stars like Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley opened. Mills was shot to death after a confrontation with the owner of a Lower Broadway-area bar and BBQ joint, now serving time for second-degree murder.
Cobb, a troubadour whose classic country-rock songs are enhanced by his warm heart and keen eye, tells Mills' story with grace and discretion, as does the charming animated video by Tom Jarrett for Dreambear. The best tribute Cobb could give someone who, as he does, spent his life on the traces, parkways and interstates around Music City, though, is the song's strong, kicky sonic engine.
Cobb kicks out a Keith Richards-in-Muscle Shoals riff on his acoustic guitar and it melds perfectly with the organ to form a foundation that's pure, easy locomotion. Each verse follows another like the stretch of blacktop between exits, resolving in a chorus that's breezy and uplifting without unsettling the song's groove. Far from maudlin, Cobb's tribute does exactly what Mills did: it keeps on rocking, headlights on, until the last note.
Providence Canyon comes out May 11 on Low Country Sound/Elektra Records.