Probably the most anticipated, talked about record of 2016 is ACM producer of the year, Dave Cobb’s concept record, Southern Family. Featuring some of the biggest artists in Country AND Americana, including Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, Jason Isbell, Morgane Stapleton (with Chris Stapleton), and Holly Williams, the record was expected to be a heavy hitter. I admit, that it was on my personal list of most anticipated records for this year and one that I thought for sure would top my Best Albums of 2016 (even though it’s only March, I was THAT confident). Being able to listen to Miranda’s “Sweet By and By”, John Paul White’s “Simple Song”, Anderson East’s “Learning”, Morgane Stapleton’s “You Are My Sunshine”, and Zac Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden” ahead of the album’s release only heightened my anticipation. So when the record was finally released, I immediately delved into it.
The record opens with John Paul White’s (of duo Civil Wars fame) contribution, “Simple Song”. The title is an excellent description of the song itself. “Simple Song” is just that, simple, and sweet. There’s a melancholic feel to the song, which finds White taking on the character of a woman who promises to uphold her wedding vows through to the “Death do us part”, even though her husband isn’t a good man. The husband isn’t an easy man to live with or love, but she stands by him. White’s grandmother served as his inspiration for the song, having raised her family and stuck by her husband, even though he had his own demons to battle. Jason Isbell, meanwhile, delivers one of the more upbeat songs on the record. “God Is A Working Man” features a downright happy beat as Isbell reminisces about religion in the south. The listener gets to see a different, not often seen side to Isbell, who usually sticks to darker material.
Brett Cobb‘s “Down Home” is a simple, rousing folk-infused tune about home. Zac Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden” reminds us that Zac Brown is still capable of producing beautiful country music, as he sings about his beloved Grandmother and the lessons that she taught them. Lee Ann Womack provides backing vocals, which adds a sweetness to the already sweet and simple song. Jamey Johnson has one of the best voices in country music today. With its rich, deep baritone, Johnson’s voice is one that is easily recognized. “Mama’s Table” finds Johnson looking back over his memories of his beloved mother, celebrating her life and the legacy she left behind. Shooter Jennings’ “Can You Come Over?” and Rich Robinson’s “The Way Home” are both louder than the rest of the offerings (aside from East’s “Learning”), taking on a more southern rock sound. Both are still worthy to be included on the record in their own way, and definitely add a little flavor to the overall record.
The standouts, for me, on this record are Miranda Lambert’s “Sweet By and By”, Morgane Stapleton’s “You Are My Sunshine”, Anderson East’s “Learning”, Holly Williams’ “Settle Down”, and Brandy Clark’s “I Cried”. I happen to be a huge fan of Miranda Lambert, so much so that I have yet to find a song of hers that I didn’t like. So I was really excited when I found out that she was included on the project. “Sweet By and By” is a sweet, simple, retro-sounding song about the importance of family and honoring your parents (Click here for a full review of the song). Morgane Stapleton showed the world that she isn’t just Chris Stapleton’s wife, that she’s just as talented in the music department as he is. Morgane shows off her beautiful pipes on a fresh take on “You Are My Sunshine”, which features hubby Chris Stapleton backing her up with background vocals. The song takes on a bluesy, mournful sound which takes it to a whole new level. Seriously, it’s the best version of this song that I’ve ever heard! I adore it!
Now, I know a lot of people panned Anderson East’s contribution, “Learning”, but I have to strongly disagree with them. I loved the song, and it’s one of my favorites. “Learning” is an excellent representation of the Muscle Shoals sounds. It is so catchy and feel-good; you won’t be able to stop yourself from jamming out to it. “Learning” transports you back to another time, it’s so good. My advice to those panning it, go back and take a few more listens, give this song the chance it deserves! Holly Williams is one of those artists whom you can depend on to deliver consistently great music. Her contribution, “Settle Down” finds Holly reminiscing about the old days of road life and raising cane, but vows to settle down and put that lifestyle behind her, now that she’s made a family.
This whole record is a treasure. Is it the greatest record to come out or even the greatest record to come out just this year? No, it’s not. But it’s a wonderful album just the same and on the list of the best ones to come out in the last few years. Every song tells a story in its own way. But I have to say, the best song on this album is Brandy Clark’s “I Cried”. It is the most touching, beautiful one. The song features Brandy singing like you’ve never heard her before, as she tells the story of a man who lived his life to the fullest and had a long one at that, and who has passed on now. The simplicity of this song is so beautiful, it’s uncomplicated and honest. If you’re going to listen to only one song on this record, listen to this one.
There’s been a lot of discussion, now that the album is out, that the record falls short of expectations. I admit, when I first listened to the album, I was expecting something deeper, maybe even darker. I was expecting a real look into the depth of the South and its culture, and its complexity. I guess I was hoping for an album more along the lines of Ashley Monroe’s “Dixie”. So obviously I was a tad disappointed at first, but then it’s my own fault. Maybe, just maybe, our expectations were too high. After all, Dave Cobb was making the album HE wanted, not one we wanted. It’s still a wonderful collection of songs, and a very enjoyable record, one that deserves a place on your playlist.