From the August 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY BOB DOERSCHUK
You know you’re getting close to Darrell Scott’s place when Angus, a four-month-old Pyrenees, and Miller, a frisky Australian shepherd, come bounding down the gravel road, tongues hanging out and tails wagging. Though assigned to guard the family goats from the coyotes and boars that prowl the hills in this forested region a hundred miles east of Nashville on the Cumberland Plateau, both dogs are overjoyed whenever a human comes by. Eagerly the pooches lead the way to an open patch of land near the hilltop house. Solar panels blanket the carport roof, under which a Prius is shaded. A vegetable garden spreads near the front door—kale, onions, English peas, assorted greens, fenced in and watched over by a carved wooden owl. A weathered porch swing dangles from trees across the driveway. In the valley below and on the faraway hills stand thick forests of tulip poplar, sycamore, oak, Eastern cedar, Virginia pine . . . .
Inside, Darrell and Angela Scott—who live off the grid—are finishing their breakfast. Dozens of pans hang from the walls. A picnic table and bench point from the kitchen into the living room. A big wood stove dominates this space, used for both cooking and, during the winter months, for heat. In this homey clutter, on his laptop, Scott recorded a few final tracks, edited, and then wrapped up production on Couchville Sessions (Full Light), his first new album since 2012. The recording features special guests Peter Rowan and Guy Clark, who contributes a rare narration.
Except it’s not exactly new.
“In 2001 and 2002, I recorded 40 to 50 songs,” says Scott, having finished his last spoonful of Golden Grahams. “Two albums of those songs got released a year later, as A Theater of the Unheard and The Invisible Man. I had this third album, which is Couchville Sessions, tracked, too. And I loved it—it was never the garbage of the session. But by the time I released the first two albums, I wanted to do something else. I probably did another four or five albums, always knowing that this one would fit in there.”
Still, Scott’s home outside of Nashville these past several years reflects a long journey, from a city immeasurably changed since he moved there more than 20 years ago. Then, as now, it was a center of the music business, but with the emphasis on the first word. Scott made his mark quickly, playing on sessions for high-profile country artists, writing songs that were turned into hits by Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, and winning Songwriter of the Year honors from the Nashville Songwriters Association in 2001 and ASCAP in 2002.
Then . . . things changed.
Country music exploded beyond its traditional demographic, picking up millions of new listeners and inevitably changing the priorities that governed the Music Row powers that be. “Business” took priority over “music,” leaving Scott and many of his songwriting peers wondering whether they had a place in the new order (a couple of years ago, his 1997 ballad “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” was featured on the cult-hit TV show Justified, garnering hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube and rekindling interest in Scott’s classic material).
“I was never grounded in writing hits,” he explains. “I was very much about writing songs, especially songs that moved me. I found out early on there are two ways you can go. One is to second-guess the marketplace. I was a complete failure at that because the songs I wrote with that purpose sounded like I was second-guessing the marketplace. They didn’t have soul, they didn’t have heart. They weren’t grounded. The other way is to write and let the chips fall where they may.”
Those chips pointed Darrell and Angela out of town and into a year and a half of reflecting on this next stage of their lives. New priorities asserted themselves: conservation, self-sufficiency, and purging his work of whatever commercial intentions it may have accumulated.
“This is more relaxed,” he says, gesturing around his house and out toward the valley and ridgeline beyond the living-room window. “There are fewer entries in my calendar. This underlined that ‘Yes, you are taking a break. Yes, you are heating with wood. Yes, you have solar panels. Yes, you are growing some of your own food. And yes, you are less in the music business.’”
Over a cup of steaming tea, Scott expands on what all of this has meant to him as a singer-songwriter and a guitar player.
‘It’s funny. Me and guitar, I’ve just always had it. I could pick it up right now, do a show and not make a fool of myself.’
You didn’t play much during your year-and-a-half layoff.
That’s right. After I came back, I had blisters on my fingers—that’s how out of touch I was with the guitar. But I’ve got to say, I highly recommend it to guitarists. I love to get away from the thing I’ve been working on so strongly forever, so I can get a new perspective.
Did you have to build your chops back up after that layoff?
It’s funny. Me and guitar, I’ve just always had it. I could pick it up right now, do a show and not make a fool of myself. What happens is not so much the mechanics. It’s the internal driving the mechanics. If you take care of the internal, which I hope I did in some version during that year and a half off, then when it hits the external guitar playing, maybe something of value has changed. Having come back for just a handful of shows, I’ve noticed that I’m playing lighter. I’m playing underneath the note. Sometimes in shows, you feel like you need to command your way through this set with this audience. You have to bear down. Well, I’m finding that I’m coming underneath it instead.
Does that affect how you improvise?
Yeah. I’m noticing that I’m playing quieter. I didn’t plan on it. It wasn’t like “I’m going to take a year and a half off and come back and play quiet.” I’m just noticing what the year and a half did. It feels like an awareness of tone is more in my consciousness than before. Before, I was just getting through the set in a loud bar, so I needed to stand up to that. Or I might be in a quiet listening room where everything is being caught. Or I’m at a festival where dogs are barking over here and people are dancing. Everything has a different exchange between the performer and the audience.
The other thing I can say is that I’m looking for different sounds. Where before I traveled around with one guitar, just this last Sunday I got home and took out the Sobell acoustic guitar, I took out a baritone electric, and I took out a Triggs giant hollow-body jazz guitar. I also plugged into amps. I still had my regular acoustic guitar mic and a pickup, but I also had an amp slaved over here on the acoustic with a volume pedal. So I’m experimenting more with sounds, rather than the normal attitude, where you plug in, they get a sound, and off you go. I can do that. There’s a certain classic singer-songwriter thing about that, like “It’s not a big deal about sound. I’ll just get up here and entertain you for the next 90 minutes.” I have that muscle, but I’m exploring with sounds that I didn’t end up with a year and a half ago.
You’re talking about effects pedals?
In some cases, yeah. So what went through my head that year and a half was, I don’t want to come back exactly as I’d finished. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I wanted to keep moving. I want to keep expanding and exploring. It’s partially about trying to make myself more interested. It’s also because I’m traveling with a soundman now, Eric Jaskowiak. So I’m trying to use that element of a consistent soundman from gig to gig to where we come up with something. Rather than the plug-and-play mentality, I want to come up with things that are unique.
You’ve talked about serving the song as you write and perform. So when that song morphs into a jam, is your improvisation connected to the song as if to serve it in a different way?
It has to shake hands; otherwise it’s “pin the tail on the donkey.” You’ve got this donkey and then you’ve got a tail on the next wall. They’re disconnected. To me, there has to be a connection. What informs my improvisation is where I just was. Sometimes that improvisation happens between verses. It’ll happen differently every night. Yeah, there are some given places where it could happen. I don’t want to make it sound like a magician, like everything is completely different. In a way, it’s not all that different. But I will take off on sections that let us go on a little melodic and harmonic trip. Maybe it’s gotten soft where I was loud on the chorus before. I’ll do that and then find my way to creep back to the third verse that I need to finish. But I hope to God the jamming I’m doing is fully footed in this sensibility of where I just was and where we’re going.
The song is like a portrait—the improvisation becomes a journey that leads back to the painting.
That almost in a way describes me. I have a problem. I can’t actually repeat myself, musically speaking. I can’t play the same song the same way every night. I’m not saying I’d prefer that. I’m declaring that I don’t actually know how to do it, because something’s gonna strike me while I’m doing it right now. That position makes me want to do something and I’m open to it, as opposed to, “Shut up! Do what I say!” It’s the same with the songwriting: I don’t want to manhandle it into a “shut up and do what I want you to do” song. It’s the same with the performance, if something says, “Wouldn’t it be cool to go up to this position instead and find your way around?” or “Forget the chording; tonight just play bass on that part.” Those things are happening right now and I’m going with them. Honestly, I don’t know how not to go with them. If it strikes me to do that, then I’m policing myself and I’m actually looking to free myself.
‘It’s not the present tense that’s on morning AM radio [in Nashville]. Do you know David Olney? How do we get better than Olney? It doesn’t happen.’
It’s good to know that you just don’t drop blues jams into a delicately constructed song, as opposed to thinking about the material as you improvise.
I don’t want to destroy songs just because I have some attitude. On the other hand, in most cases I use my songs as a departure to jam or improvise. Hopefully it’s entertaining. It’s entertaining to me. And it goes where I feel like going tonight.
Well, it did feel like the good old days had passed, back when Townes [Van Zandt] and Guy [Clark] were around. But those weren’t the good old days for me. I’m actually glad I wasn’t there. There was drinking and drugs and a huge lack of women in the business. It seemed like a competition, a measuring of sorts. Sometimes it’s good to measure, like, “How dark and deep can you go in a song?” That’s OK; I like that. But to me, it didn’t seem like Paris in the 1920s.
But even now, some of the most wide-open thinkers and musicians and singers and writers I’ve ever known are walking around like the Paris situation. It doesn’t mean they’ve got the next so-and-so cut.
Are you talking about present-day Nashville?
Yeah, I am, but it’s not the present tense that’s on morning AM radio. Do you know David Olney? How do we get better than Olney? It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that Olney has got the next so-and-so’s cut. But it means that Olney can make a living and continue being David Olney. That spark is still there. And I like that.
Author Bob Doerschuk lives in Nashville. He is a frequent contributor to Acoustic Guitar and other magazines, and the former editor of Musician magazine.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.