Darrell Scott is a musician’s musician. A talented songwriter and wordsmith, he has crafted hits and musical memories for some of the best. He makes a solo acoustic guitar sound like a full band, with twists and turns on the fretboard that surprise and delight. Scott’s expressive singing voice can take the best-known work of some of America’s greatest songwriters and bring out surprising interpretations that are totally his own. As a collaborator, he easily moves between supporting his bandmates with inventive rhythm tracks on the guitar, banjo, or dobro while stepping forward to add just the right lick or vocal harmony when needed to take the song to new heights.
He is, to put it simply, a favorite for many of those “in the know,” and we’ll explore his musical wizardry in today’s Saturday Soundtrack.
Patagonia fly fishing ambassador, environmentalist, musician, explorer, and talented writer Nathaniel Riverhorse Nakadate has been featured in various fly fishing, surfing, and guitar magazines and publications around the globe. When he writes about Darrell Scott, it is poetry.
“There is an absence of light, before the light. A simple bare stage in the waning gloaming, and I can see Darrell make his way to a lone microphone. He is here to shine that light on matters of the heart─the grit, grease, gristle, and most importantly, the marrow beneath the breastbone.
And what is the path that shapes us as we go along, those true defining moments without which we would be hollow versions of our current selves? For Darrell, it was coming from a musical family with a father who had him smitten with guitars by the age of 4, alongside a brother who played Jerry Reed style as well. From there, things only ramped up with literature and poetry endeavors while a student at Tufts University, along with playing his way through life. This would never change.
When those hands of his make their way across the strings and fretboard, there is palpable loss of air in the theater, as the listeners, our feet and bodies firmly on the ground, watch his sonic wings take him upwards in flight, and realize we are as along for the ride through the skies as he is. Inevitably, to feel this being channeled, privy to this shared physical space, is both heady and inspiring. Small are the number of things in life which allow us to be so deeply immersed and mesmerized by a moment that we are unable to even be aware of the rest of the world humming and whirring away outside. This is Darrell Scott terra firma, where he takes us, with these otherworldly gifts.“
I first heard Darrell Scott perform at MerleFest, a venue he’s returned to again and again, and I’ve also heard him at Red Wing as seen in the photo above. To hear Darrell Scott live is to understand his artistry and power in the visceral and deeply immersive way that Riverhorse Nakadate describes. (Note: Pandemic-willing, Scott is slated to perform at the Rams Head in Annapolis on July 20.)
Darrell Scott has been known as a top-shelf songwriter for quite some time. His You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, about the life of coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, was one of the early songs that demonstrated his uncanny ability to tell a short story in song.
“In the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
‘You will never leave Harlan alive‘
Well my grandad’s dad walked down Katahrin’s Mountain
And he asked Tillie Helton to be his bride
He said, “Won’t you walk with me out of the mouth of this holler
Or we’ll never leave Harlan alive”
Patty Loveless performed a beautiful and heartfelt version on her Mountain Soul album, and in the live performance she introduces it by talking about the coal miners in her family. When she and Scott get to the aching chorus, you know they both know where they came from.
“Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
And you spend your life just thinking how to get away“
Scott also made a pocketful of royalties for writing The Chick‘s hit Long Time Gone. This is a tune that Scott often sings with his collaborator Tim O’Brien since they released it together on 2000’s Real Time album. In this live version taped in Raleigh, NC, you get a sense of Scott’s guitar skills just a little over a minute into the song. Then, check out the interplay between Scott and O’Brien beginning at about the 3:30 mark. With their great improvisations, they sound like two very experienced tight-rope walkers having a blast.
When I mentioned to a client who shares my musical sensibilities that I was going to feature Darrell in a Saturday Soundtrack, he immediately responded by writing, “To me, his opening two tracks on Theater of the Unheard are just incredible — two of the best back-to-back songs on any album I own.” Theatre of the Unheard is an early album of music that was actually written a decade before this release for an unfulfilled project, and to my mind the production is a little heavy handed. However, when my friend wrote that “’He was not my father’s brother, but wished that he could be’ in Uncle Lloyd is one of the more captivating opening lines of any song I’ve heard,” I had to include it here.
“He was not my father’s brother
But he wished that he could be
Told us kids to call him Uncle
We would be his family
He had a wife and kids in Fresno
The youngest one was twenty-four
Daddy brought him into our house
They didn’t want him anymore“
Another example of Scott’s mix of innovative guitar work, stellar songwriting, and soulful vocals can be seen on this live version of Still Got a Ways to Go.
“Time is slowly ticking, taking all our youth
Beelzebub and chosen one have both been in cahoots
They play us like gin rummy and they’re cheating on the side
While we gaze into a broken mirror like Frankenstein’s bride
I wish someone could tell me something I don’t already know
It’s been some hard living, still got a ways to go
Rooster in the hen house, hit man on the phone
Low man on the totem pole, can’t get no time alone
I’ve been seeking satisfaction for this gnawing in my soul
I build a house like Andrew Jackson if that were my only goal
I’m looking for a change to come but brother, change comes slow
And it’s been some hard living, still got a ways to go“
Travis Tritt had a country hit with Scott’s It’s a Great Day to Be Alive. In the live version below, the songwriter’s original has a more bluesy feel. His Hank Williams’ Ghost is also another Scott song that I include to show the range of his work.
In 2010, I included a review of A Crooked Road on More to Come to showcase another fine collection of songs.
However, one of my favorite Darrell Scott albums is one where he didn’t write any of the selections. It is his ode to the influential songwriters of his youth, Modern Hymns. As Steven Stone writes in Vintage Guitar,
“This isn’t the first album on which Scott has displayed his interpretive abilities, but here he tackles a wider range of material. Song choices include Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘All The Lovely Ladies,’ Guy Clark’s ‘That Old Time Feeling,’ and Kris Kistofferson’s ‘Jesus Was a Capricorn.’ Others are musically further afield, such as Pat Metheny’s ‘James,’ Leonard Cohen’s ‘Joan of Arc,”’and Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune.’”
Regardless of the source, by the second bar, every song sounds like a Darrell Scott tune. He combines old-timey textures with modern tin-pan alley sensibilities in a unique way, luxuriating in the harmonies and changes of each song. Scott frames Adam Mitchell’s ‘Out Among the Stars’ with a full a capella choir, then performs his most striking musical transformation with ‘Joan of Arc.’ Mary Gauther sings the lead with a world-weary timbre while Scott delivers the answering ‘fire’ part of their duet with an intensity that matches Cohen’s rendition from Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat album.…
To understand how a songwriter’s mind works, you must listen to how they perform covers. On Modern Hymns, Darrell Scott delivers 12 striking performances that illuminate his unique style.“
Jesus Was a Capricorn resurrected (pun intended) a great, but not-often-heard Kristofferson song with the classic line “I reckon we’d just nail him up if he came down again.” Oh how true. And his interpretation of Adam Mitchell’s Out Among the Stars is, to my ear, the best take anyone has made of this searing and deeply emotional short story.
I’ll end with two other interpretations by Scott of the music of other songwriters. His most recent album is Darrell Scott Sings the Blues of Hank Williams and it includes this lovely version of Lost Highway.
In 2010-2011, Robert Plant revived The Band of Joy for an album and tour, and Scott joined Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Byron House, and other stellar musicians for the gig. Each night on tour, Plant asked Scott, Griffin, and Miller to take the lead on a song of their choosing. As Scott tells in the intro to a solo live version, he started playing the old Porter Wagoner hit A Satisfied Mind, and the beauty of the lyrics and harmonies stuck. I’ll leave you with The Band of Joy‘s live version and, I hope, a very satisfied mind.
More to come…