For his fourth album, Keep ‘Em on They Toes, Brent Cobb is giving his songs the space they need to speak for themselves, a reflection of his own decision to write about the way he sees the world.
“My last couple of albums have been about people and places, and I wanted this album to be about thoughts and feelings,” he says. “I think it’s pretty easy to look around and see what’s going on in the world. With my heroes and the people that I listen to, it seems like the natural progression for me.”
Yet at his core, Cobb still writes country songs, so there’s a continuity between Keep ‘Em on They Toes and past projects like 2016’s Shine on Rainy Day (a Grammy nominee for Best Americana Album) and 2018’s Providence Canyon, named for a gorge near his hometown of Ellaville, Georgia. After living in Los Angeles and Nashville to develop his music career, Cobb and his family moved back to Georgia a few years ago — a decision that he says absolutely affected his songwriting.
“It’s funny because the last two albums were about me growing up in Georgia, and now we’re back here,” he says. “I’m not writing about missing it anymore, so the songs are coming from within now. It’s not a longing for home, it’s what I think about now that I live down here.”
Yet there isn’t a preachy component to Keep ‘Em on They Toes. Instead it captures the mindset of a man who values a simpler time despite living in a modern world. One of the album’s liveliest songs, “Soap Box,” was written by Cobb and his father, Patrick Cobb, who instilled an early love of music and songwriting into his son. Nikki Lane provides a “perfectly imperfect” harmony part, giving the track a cool, casual vibe.
In contrast, Cobb built the track of “When You Go” around his acoustic guitar, underscoring the song’s message of letting go of unnecessary things. “It’s like, man, we’ve only got one life. A lot of things are important, and of course we’ve got a world to leave behind for our kids to inherit, but we ain’t gonna be able take some of the things with us. We need to maybe not sweat the small stuff,” he explains.
While “The World Is Ending” fits into the overall feel of the album (not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic), it’s actually from 2011, written in response to those who predicted a doomsday when the Mayan calendar ran out in 2012. The cosmic imagery of the song is contrasted with the down-home life he portrays in “Little Stuff,” the final track on the album as well as Cobb’s personal favorite.
“It fits because — I’ll be honest with you — over the last couple of years I’ve eaten a lot of mushrooms. I’ve had a crazy experience on mushrooms about how connected everything is,” he says. “I actually went down to a little creek and tripped. I thought, ‘All we’re here to do is sit and watch the sun rise and set, for as long as we’re here.’ You’ve got your opinion, I’ve got mine, but what I think is really important is taking a trip to the river and getting right with whatever your center is.”
Even so, Cobb forges a personal connection throughout Keep ‘Em on They Toes, just as his musical heroes have done before him.
“To me, listening to this album feels like I’m sitting there with somebody, having a conversation,” Cobb says. “I would hope that it feels like sitting with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. There’s nothing like being alone and listening to an album that is quiet and conversational — like those old records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger Miller, or Willie Nelson. I hope my music is that way to somebody now.”