If you tuned into this year’s Country Music Awards ceremony, you might have seen Darrell Scott: There he was on guitar, backing up a duet between Chris Stapleton and Patty Loveless on his song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” The song has been recorded by Patty Loveless and Brad Paisley, and it has achieved some status as one of the classics of country music over the last 30 years.
At a recent performance in The Barns at Wolf Trap, Scott chose to open his set with “Harlan,” originally recorded for his first album, Aloha From Nashville. It’s a gritty tale of survival, coal mines, and family in “the deep, dark hills of Eastern Kentucky,” where “the sun comes up about 10 in the morning, and goes down about 3 o’clock every day.”
While there aren’t supernatural elements to the song (at least not overt ones), it’s not hard to see how it fits into the long, proud tradition of the Southern Gothic.
Watch Darrell Scott perform “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” for Transatlantic Sessions on YouTube:
While Darrell Scott’s songs make use of some of the traditional iconography of country music, he also brings a literary, poetic sensibility to his songwriting. It’s not surprising, given he studied English literature and poetry at Tufts University, in Boston. When he got to Nashville, he fell in with a crowd of literary-minded songwriters like Guy Clark, with whom he often played.
Guy Clark appeared in one of Scott’s stories at Wolf Trap on April 28 — stories about Scott recording with his father, Wayne. He described his father as “an amateur musician” who “caught the songwriting bug” but “had no idea how to become a pro.” Darrell recorded some of his dad’s songs, with his dad singing them; the first time they recorded — on “It’s The Whiskey That Eases The Pain” — Guy joined on vocals.
While Darrell’s roots lie in the South, he actually grow up “on the Indiana side of Chicago,” as he sings in “East of Gary.” He was born in Kentucky, but his family moved when he was very young. It’s just a piece of a certain cosmopolitan approach to country music, respecting its traditions and tropes while bringing a sophisticated, modern perspective that Scott brings to his lyrics. “Sweet Southern Comfort,” he explained “has two things classic country music has.” The first of those is drinking, and “If you drink, you might cheat,” he added. In his second song of the evening, “Pay Lake,” he sang about a man-made lake where people pay to go fishing. (After the song, he quipped, “Did you recognize that Phantom of the Opera lick?”)
Watch Darrell Scott perform “East of Gary” live at The Floyd Country Store via YouTube:
The evening consisted of two short sets. After “Sweet Southern Comfort,” Darrell played “Heartbreak Town,” which he dedicated to Maya. He wrote the next one for his future wife, Angie, who was handling merch duties, and he played it for her first on a hot air balloon ride over the Tetons. For his second to last song of the set, he brought out local musician Gina Soval, who accompanied him on flute. He closed the first set with “Head South.”
Speaking of instruments, Darrell is as known for his instrumental chops as he is for his songwriting acumen, having served as a sideman to artists like Robert Plant. At Friday’s show, he played a variety of instruments: electric and acoustic guitar, dobro (a kind of resonator guitar traditionally used in country and even more in bluegrass music), and a beautiful Steinway piano. The dobro was brought to the show; Scott will often play instruments that his fans bring to the show.
At this point, I asked if anyone had ever brought an unusual instrument, like, say, a tuba. “I can’t play a tuba,” he replied, “but I can fill it with ice cream.” He then recalled how he recently stayed at a hotel that offered “unlimited ice cream,” which he described as a “bad idea.” I suspect that’s because many performers on the road — not just musicians, as I’ve heard these stories about pro wrestlers as well — try to economize on their food budget by eating at affordable buffets, where they will absolutely load up. I can relate to this, as my father once said my zodiac sign is “buffet.”
After a 15-minute intermission, Darrell kicked off his second set with “Double-Headed Eagle.” After “You’ll Be With Me All The Way,” he played the uplifting “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive,” another of his songs that became a major hit for another artist, going to No. 2 on the charts for Travis Tritt. For the last song of the second set, Gina returned to accompany Darrell, this time on sax, on “River Take Me.”
When Scott, along with Gina, returned for his encore, he mentioned how he released two albums during the pandemic: Jaroso, a live record, and a set of covers of Hank Williams’s blues songs. Darrell ended the show with one of those songs, “I’ve Been A Fool About You.”
A lot of folks have an idea about country music that’s based on the contemporary stuff on the radio, which is often more pop than country. But there are incredibly talented folks like Darrell who are keeping the torch burning for real country, and more importantly, for great songs and great musicianship. If you want to know what country is really about, you should check him out.