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From His Rural Retreat, Darrell Scott Makes A Grassroots Return

Michael Weintrob

A time came in the past decade when Darrell Scott felt like he needed to trade one form of growth for another. A fast-changing city was hemming him in. Five hundred acres on the Cumberland Plateau beckoned.

“Nashville was just kind of flipping out in a growth pattern that didn't seem to hold to where it came from. It was like somebody else's town, if I were to tell the truth,” Scott says in Episode 260 of The String. He’s seated in the great room and music studio of his rural home near Cookeville, TN. If you’d been wondering where the star songwriter/artist has been in recent years, this is mostly the place. “Suddenly, I'm a landowner, feeling like I want to caretake for this land. I don't want to abuse it. We're practicing how they did things 120 and more years ago. Our cow manure is our fertilizer. We have a tractor and a skid steer.”

I have to look up skid steer, and it’s one of those small(ish) bulldozers. The tractor came from the estate of the late Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw star Grandpa Jones.

But exactly who is this gentleman farmer, in case you need a refresher? Darrell Scott emerged on the roots music radar in 1997 with the indie album Aloha From Nashville and a 1999 follow-up Family Tree, which was released by Sugar Hill Records. There was no mistaking the level of talent, honed by years of playing in bar bands with his brothers and dad out west. The career songs “Great Day To Be Alive” and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” were on the first recording. His voice was honey rich and timeless. He could pick numerous instruments like a studio pro, making him that rare triple threat artist.

Darrell’s songs became magnets for other artists. The then-Dixie Chicks championed his work, recording “Heartbreak Town” and the remarkable country music manifesto “Long Time Gone” during their rise to the top. Other stars like Garth Brooks, Sara Evans, Faith Hill and Darryl Worley cut his compositions. Brad Paisley recorded “Out In The Parking Lot,” a song Scott co-wrote with the mighty Guy Clark.

Patty Loveless recorded “Harlan” for her Mountain Soul album of 2001, adding to the explosion of popular bluegrass during that era, and the producers of the hit series Justified loved the song so much they built the closing scenes of every season of the show to a different cover version. It recently made a welcome return with a Patty Loveless/Chris Stapleton performance at last Fall’s CMA Awards that was simply magical. Scott’s been named songwriter of the year by both the NSAI and ASCAP. And In 2007, Scott’s catchy tribute “Hank Williams Ghost” was named Song of the Year at the Americana Awards.

I’d hasten to add that Scott’s not coasting on his laurels in his rustic, solar-powered home. Pandemic break notwithstanding, he’s kept up a tempo of 60-80 dates at venues and festivals across the country each year. And that led pretty directly to the focal point of our interview, the new quasi-bluegrass album Old Cane Back Rocker, as the Darrell Scott String Band, with the band’s names prominently billed on the cover: veteran bass player Bryn Davies, fiddler Shad Cobb, and Matt Flinner, who adds on to his always deft mandolin playing with a lot of powerhouse banjo.

“Sometimes festivals would ask me to bring a bluegrass band. Instead of just hiring me as a solo thing, they wanted a bigger sound. And these are the people I would take,” Scott says. In 2022, he realized the band would have a week off between festivals. So he booked time at the studio in Boulder, CO operated by eTown founder Nick Forster and took the band to a new level.

“Because we do so few gigs out there, we never developed harmony,” Darrell explains “It's one thing to play with monster musicians, and we can get through anything, roughly speaking. There's a fearlessness there. But there's fear when it comes to singing harmonies, because timings need to be there. There's more of a thing to it, a plot to it, and we never had the time to put the plot together. We were always just pulling out a gig. So on this record, it was at the top of my list to have everybody singing on every song.”

Those voices chime right in on the chorus of the opening song “Kentucky Morning,” a tale that alludes to Scott’s own history as a family that left Kentucky as part of a migration to the midwest for better work opportunities. The voices sound extra lush on “The Weary Way,” a pure honky tonker written by Darrell’s late father Wayne, who ushered his sons into country music. Even more layered voices elevate “Cumberland Plateau” and the old Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Southern Cross” with the guest harmonies of John Cowan. And it’s a real joy to hear a refreshed, stripped down “Great Day To Be Alive” toward the end of the album.

Every song has ramifications that tie to some chapter of Darrell’s life. The performances are transparent and passionate. We talk about it all, plus the lost album Darrell made at the outset of his career that was shelved by a major label, the pedal steel guitar his dad gifted him way back when, and a bit about how goats and sheep make the best lawn mowers. Also, we at least mention the other news in Scott’s artistic life, his work as producer for an upcoming album by folkster Willi Carlisle and a new one from NC roots band the Steep Canyon Rangers. I loved this visit and hope you do too.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>