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Crooked Road to Nashville

The Improvised Life of Darrell Scott

Darrell Scott, A88, is what you might call a stealth celebrity. Chances are you’ve never heard of this Nashville-based songwriter, but his deeply personal ballads of love, loss, and longing have been top-ten hits for the Dixie Chicks (“Long Time Gone”) and Travis Tritt (“Great Day to be Alive”). He knows whereof he speaks when, in his song “Heartbreak Town,” he says, I’ve seen ’em rise, I’ve seen ’em fall, some get nothing’ and lord some get it all. He’s watched Faith Hill, Keb’ Mo’, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw, and other stars record his tunes, and Scott has won the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year Award and has several Grammy nominations to his credit.

He’s in demand as a session musician; when summoned, he usually brings along at least his guitar, banjo, mandolin, and dobro. One recent three-week studio gig has turned into an international tour as a sideman in the Band of Joy with Led Zeppelin’s founder, Robert Plant. Other of Scott’s collaborators have included Marcus Hummon, Steve Earle, John Cowan, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, and Alison Krauss.

Yet it may be that his various talents are best appreciated listening to one of his six solo CDs or attending one of the roughly seventy solo shows he does a year. He’s a fixture on the festival circuit here and in the United Kingdom, and performs in the folk-roots music underground, making stops like Boulder, Austin, and the Twin Cities. His voice is perhaps his best instrument: it can fill a hall, sing the blues, raise the gospel rafters, or lull a baby to sleep. But his lyrics—poetic, pointed, and personal—amp up the message. “Darrell has a bigger musical footprint than most,” observes the veteran folk rocker Jon Pousette-Dart. “He is a natural in a world where there aren’t that many.”

Still, if Scott, at fifty-one, remains the musical equivalent of the character actor that you recognize but can’t quite name, he doesn’t appear to be torn apart by it. A big man, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, with an easy, quiet way about him, he’s a listener and observer who generally smiles first in any conversation. He has a passion for food and likes nothing more than cooking for people; he’s a baker, a chili maker, an omnivore, really. He enjoys wine (German whites, California reds, you pick) and thrives on the sociability of friends, the company of his children (a college daughter, a son on the way to university, and a high school son), and laughter at life’s surprises.

Scott also has a theory about his songs, densely packed with autobiographical details as they are. He maintains that regardless of how private his inspiration may be, his music reaches out to the larger world. “The extremely personal becomes universal,” as he puts it.

Few who are familiar with his work would disagree. The fact is that Scott has a gift for transforming memory and experience into public art, and the crooked road his life has taken is his best subject. As he sums it up on his 2005 album Invisible Man, “I’ve been singing for a living back and forth across America, singing about things I should tell my shrink.”

High on any list of such things would be scott’s musical coming of age during the year he turned twelve. Life in California was new; after Gary, Indiana, where his father, Wayne, had labored in a steel mill, San Bernardino offered year-round work for the fledgling family business—erecting chain-link fences. And while the Scotts had little money and more than their share of marital ups-and-downs, their house was full of guitars and singing: “With all that change, music was one of the binding things in our family. Like some families play golf or hunt, music was our pastime.” The third of five boys, Scott, on bass, had just taken his place in the family band, Wayne Scott and Harlan County (the name was a recognition of Wayne’s roots in hard-luck Kentucky coal country).

But the band’s gigs were different now. In Indiana, the two older sons had grown accustomed to backing up their whiskey-voiced father at church outreach events, at schools, hospitals, and even prisons, anywhere a crowd would listen to them make music. By contrast, playing for pay in the honky-tonk bars of California allowed for little spontaneity. The playlist was limited, mostly country hits by the likes of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, although the younger generation worked in a few Neil Young and Bob Seeger tunes. More to the point, a fair amount of psychological armor was in order. Fights often broke out. “It felt violent, and all the club owner cared about was getting the crowd to drink and dance,” Scott remembers. “The audience seemed like the enemy.”

It was in the midst of this tumultuous time that Scott wrote his first song. “I was a shy kid, so I didn’t tell anyone,” he says. All these years later, he looks the embarrassed child as the memory surfaces. “I got found out because one of my brothers picked up the piece of paper with my little lyric and put a tune to it. He thought it was Dad’s—and I had to confess.”

By age sixteen, he was done with high school, having taken the California equivalency exam to escape the boredom of the classroom. He had also left the family band, finding work in dance bands and country music groups. “I made really good money for a sixteen- or seventeen-year old,” he says. “I was living at home, buying great stereos and albums.”

Eventually he caught on as a member of a house band at a bar in San Bernardino called the Brandin’ Iron, playing five nights a week. “It was the top of the local food chain, a safe, well-paying gig.” But the musical fare wasn’t very interesting. “It was sausage making, really cranking it out. Every rehearsal would be about learning something new from the country or pop charts.”

At twenty, he met a nurse from Alabama in the bar. A few months later they married and headed north. They lived in a van, looking for gigs, regularly moving on, and in time crossed the border into Canada. Scott smiles as he tells the tale. “Canada seemed exotic, but it was really a childish, we-gotta-get-out-of-here thing.”

He found a job in a lounge in Stratford, Ontario, where he sang and played folk and pop songs as a one-man band. Then a cold call to a local recording studio to offer his services as a session musician resulted in an audition with the Mercey Brothers, an established band that had already won two dozen Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys). Scott was hired on the spot.

The Mercey Brothers turned out to be entertainers and businessmen as well as musicians. Scott describes their shows as “Ta-dah! presentation with country music. We dressed like Elvis and wore cowboy hats” (the band had an endorsement deal with a cowboy apparel company). The better news was that when they made a new album, it included two of Scott’s songs, one of which was released as a single and got a lot of airplay. A career seemed to be in the making. Scott signed a publishing deal to write more songs.

But what had seemed like a big break soon soured. On the one hand: “I liked that my songs were being recorded.” On the other: “I didn’t like the songs I was writing. Creatively I was looking for some deeper expression, but I was doing Las Vegas country music. I wanted to be Jackson Browne, not a country music machine.” It didn’t help that his hasty marriage was coming apart.

In retrospect, he sees that the lure of Canada had a lot to do with other artists. “I guess I always wondered why there were so many great singer-songwriters from Canada. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot. In the back of my brain I wanted to figure out, Why is that?

He still didn’t know, but he’d learned that whatever it was, it had little to do with geography. “I could have stayed in the Canadian music industry,” he reflects, “but I knew I would be stuck in an unsatisfying music writing process. I had instinct enough to know I had to go. And—I can’t explain it—it seemed important to work at not being a musician.”

The next twist in the road took him back to school at age twenty-four. “I always had a fantasy of college, but none of the skills,” Scott says. He had enrolled in a California community college as a teenager, but had repeatedly withdrawn from his courses, recognizing a lack of preparation doomed him to failing grades. His higher-ed inclination led him to consult a map of suburban Boston. “I needed to go where no one knew me, and New England was a place where I had no history,” he says. He headed south in a beat-up Chevy Nova with his cat, Seemore.

On a drive-by tour, Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts, seemed right: “A beautiful little town. It looked like a place I could change my habits.” After taking English composition and study skills, he signed up for every literature class he could and “did really well.” He acted in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending and sang the lead in Brigadoon. After two years, his all-around success brought him to the REAL program (Resumed Education for Adult Learners) at Tufts.

It was a difficult adjustment. Most of his community college classmates had been tracked for careers like nursing or law enforcement, and many were part-time. At Tufts, he was one of only a few commuters, and his daily arrival on the Hill was a kind of cultural shock therapy. “I was surrounded by sons and daughters of surgeons, congressmen, and heads of law firms,” he recalls. Many drove expensive cars; some wore clothing out of fashion magazines. All of them seemed to have been better prepared at fine schools. “I thought they were wildly more intelligent and more powerful. I didn’t feel like I fit in.”

Then one day in the college bookstore he came across a volume of poetry by Philip Levine, then a Tufts artist-in-residence. Although Levine was much celebrated (he has won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, among many other honors), what struck Scott was the writing itself. “When I read his poems, I realized this was a man I needed to be taking as many courses with as I could pull off.”

And as soon as Scott walked into the classroom, Levine, the son of a Detroit autoworker, realized that the two had a lot in common. “You looked at this guy and you saw he wasn’t dressed like the other students. He was older, he carried himself differently. He reminded me of myself when I got a grant to study at Stanford. It was so clear we didn’t belong.” Scott recognized their kinship, too, and confided his discomfort. Levine understood. Scott, in turn, opened up more. “I told him stories about my childhood, about steel mills and chain-link fences,” Scott says, “and he told me to write about them.”

It was exactly the advice that Scott needed. For the first time, he mined his own history, starting with his family, just a generation away from an upland holler in Kentucky. He remembered the smokestacks of Gary, Indiana, where his father had worked, and the odor of fuel oil from the delivery truck that Wayne Scott drove on weekends (sometimes with Darrell riding shotgun). He looked back on the Southern Baptist Church the family attended, and the bus in which his father used to pick up parishioners who had no other means of transport. Then there were the California bars and Canadian country. The material, Levine convinced him, was all there.

Before long, the lyrics for “Uncle Lloyd” took shape. He was not my father’s brother, the song begins, but he wishes that he could be. It goes on to tell of a man whose wife and children didn’t want him anymore. During the day Lloyd helped us work the family business, building fences in the sun, and at night he slept on a mattress on the workroom floor and found solace in his Seagram’s, which never went down hard. Darrell Scott, witness and recorder, found himself wondering how a man at fifty-seven winds up living so alone.

Levine and Scott both knew the vivid expression of raw adult experience raised this above the level of undergraduate doggerel, but it was more, too. “Until then, I didn’t have a piece of work in my writer’s voice,” Scott says. “‘Uncle Lloyd’ just came out as a full song. My writer’s voice has been there ever since.”

Scott continued to steep himself in literature, as the likes of William Blake, Lazarus, and Joan of Arc began to appear in his songs. As graduation approached, he thought about pursuing an M.F.A. in writing and living an academic life. “That was the crossroads: to continue with my studies or come back to music. And it seemed like it was time to come back. I had found something I never had before.”

Through an undergraduate network, a demo tape of his songs got delivered to the dining table of Charles Koppelman, founder of SBK records. After several preliminary “development deals” representing little money and no firm promises, he attained every performer’s dream: a real record contract.

It seemed as though Scott’s long apprenticeship as an artist was actually paying off. His producer was Norbert Putnam, a music industry veteran who’d worked with Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett, and Dan Fogelberg. Putnam insisted on recording in Memphis so the players who came in from L.A., along with Scott from Boston, would be fresh. The album that came out of the studio included “Uncle Lloyd” and eleven other Scott songs. “We had the whole record done,” Scott remembers. “Norbert was giving it the goodbye kiss, signaling to the record company We’re done. It was great to see how he operated.”

Only Putnam didn’t have the last word. “The record company said they didn’t hear any hits,” Scott says. “I did write two more songs to add to the mix, but they weren’t what they wanted.” Without so much as a funeral dirge for accompaniment, the record was relegated to a corporate shelf. Worse, Scott’s newest and most original work was out of his control. For seven years, he was legally prohibited from recording any of the songs on the stillborn album.

Scott felt gutted. “One of the biggest things that ever happened to me had just fallen apart,” he remembers. “You question your work as an artist, writer, and singer—and you don’t have any money.”

But once the despair began to lift, he asked himself, Am I an artist only if I have a record deal? A few months later, in January 1982, he moved to Tennessee, and he could not have picked a better time. According to data from barcodes and other measures of sales and airplay, Nashville had become the nation’s musical center of gravity. Scott also found that there was more to the place than the Grand Ole Opry. Folk singers, English rockers, L.A. refugees, traditional Irish musicians, and a host of others had come to town, some to live, others to make records.

By then he had married again, and he and his wife had an infant daughter. “That first year we lived off credit cards,” he recalls. He was beginning to get session work when, in 1993, he was tapped to play with Guy Clark, a Nashville elder with more than a dozen albums to his credit. Scott admired Clark—“He makes great, honest records”—and was prompted to invest more in himself. “I had been borrowing guitars from a friend. I’d never had one of my own that was worth more than three hundred dollars. Finally, when I had a real session with Guy, it was time to have a real instrument, and I bought a K20 Taylor.”

More sessions came his way as his reputation got around Nashville. About the same time, he landed a publishing contract that paid a monthly sum as an advance against future earnings from his songs. “It was a beginning deal, but I was making the best living I ever had,” he says. Still more success came from the music publisher’s suggestion that Scott, as a talented player and singer, make his own inexpensive demos. He set to work in his living room on what would be Aloha from Nashville. The title was tongue-in-cheek, since Aloha means both hello and goodbye. “I still wasn’t sure if I’d be welcomed to Nashville or asked to leave.”

When he completed the record, in 1996, he passed copies around by hand. “I wasn’t a touring musician,” he says, “and I hadn’t a clue how to promote it.” But through his growing circle of contacts, the right people heard his songs. Sugar Hill Records, a force among independents in neotraditional music, picked up Aloha from Nashville for distribution. The Dixie Chicks recorded “Heartbreak Town.” In the nation’s new Tin Pan Alley—they call it Music Row—Scott was establishing a place.

In a moment of redemption, the rights to the songs on the SBK album eventually reverted back to him, meaning he was free to do with them as he wished. For several years he did nothing. When he did revisit the material, he was prepared to make changes. “But when I went back,” he says, “the songs didn’t need any reworking. I realized it hadn’t been the songs’ fault—it wasn’t that I did poor work that led to my album not getting released.”

In the end, he simply recorded the old tunes again, with a new attitude. “I had learned to relax in the recording process,” he explains. “Literally, we would pull the coffee table out of the way—we recorded those songs in my living room. I wasn’t trying to hit a home run. There wasn’t the kind of hyped-up, most-important-thing-in-my-life feel. And the songs stood up.”

They stood up so well, in fact, that the CD, titled Theatre of the Unheard, won the Independent Music Award for Album of the Year in 2005. Even so, Scott’s down-to-earth take on the whole enterprise remains the same. “More than any accolades, the important thing is how I feel about the work,” he says. The beauty of Theatre of the Unheard is that “it wasn’t about the clock ticking, the money on the table, the label coming to dinner. I had learned to carry on outside that world, and put together an album with my musician friends, in my house.”

The tunes scott has produced in his two decades of serious songwriting expose the sinews of a complicated family. At the same time, they express feelings shared by human beings everywhere. Loneliness is certainly one: it lies at the heart of both “Uncle Lloyd” and a later work, “East of Gary,” in which Scott sings, There’s a little boy, he’s got big brown eyes, he’s got swimming trunks ’bout twice his size. Looking at a steel mill sunset, skipping a stone, “Hey, ain’t you a little young to feel so alone?” Scott takes on the harsh story of his own childhood, including his mother’s departure. She hit the road in a Galaxie Ford, the one that Daddy had bought her, he relates in “My Father’s House.” She crossed the tracks and never looked back—she was hummin’ a song he had taught her.

He reaches all the way to eastern Kentucky in “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” The musical past haunts his work, too. “Old Joe Clark” explores the traditional banjo standard, and then there’s his song “Hank Williams’ Ghost,” which the Americana Music Association named Song of the Year. Nor were Scott’s years as a student of literature wasted, as the songs are literate, full of casual references to War and Peace and Robert Frost (the theme of the road not traveled has a way of resurfacing in his work). “He has the rangy independence of the mountaineer and of the working class,” observes Tim O’Brien, a Grammy-winning newgrass performer and collaborator of Scott’s. “But he’s a student of creative writing and poetry. A hybrid. Darrell’s really unique.”

In his sixth solo album, a two-CD collection called A Crooked Road that won this year’s Independent Music Award for Best Country Album, Scott delves into the rites of romance, the challenges of connecting with kids, and the rigors of life on the road—and in addition to his usual instruments, he plays the harmonica, cello, bouzouki, autoharp, drums, piano, harp, and mandocello (a lower-register member of the mandolin family). Two new projects are in progress: Scott describes the first, Long Ride Home, as “a very country album,” but the other is a collaboration with the string quartet from the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.

And that twelve-year-old kid who couldn’t bear to tell anyone about his new song? Believe it or not, he remains very much a part of Scott. “I’m still very shy,” he says. “But what happens is that the music that passes through me has given me the courage to step up and become a writer.” Perhaps more telling, though, is the particular kind of writer he became. If you listen closely to his music, you will grasp that you’re in the presence of someone who can’t help but examine his dreams and demons. At their best, his songs make you feel like he knows about yours, too.

HUGH HOWARD, A74, most often writes about the past. His books include Houses of the Founding Fathers, The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art, and the forthcoming Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War (Bloomsbury Press, 2012). He wrote about New England slavery in the Summer 2010 issue of this magazine. Howard first met Darrell Scott in New Hampshire some twenty years ago, on Lake Winnipesaukee, the place that inspired Scott’s acoustic instrumental, “Alton Air.”

  © 2011 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155