Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Q&A with Darrell Scott

I recently spoke to singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott to preview his Charlotte date and in doing so got to talk to him about his new album, “Long Ride Home,” 2008’s “Modern Hymns,” and growing up in coal country.

There are several things about Scott’s work that resonate with me. On “Modern Hymns” - a collection of songs that influenced him - he covers two songs that were absolute staples growing up for me. My father often quoted Kris Kristofferson’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn” and we listened to Hoyt Axton’s “The Devil” driving around in the country with our dog. I’ve since put the latter on a mix for my sons. Scott, who is part of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy as well as an award winning writer whose tracks have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Travis Tritt, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and others, also grew up in Kentucky. Having grown up in nearby West Virginia we discussed his oft covered song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (covered by fellow West Virginians Brad Paisley and Kathy Mattea).

For “Long Ride Home” he employed classic country session musicians piano player Pig Robbins and harmonica player Charlie McCoy (my bass teacher when I was a kid was actually in McCoy’s band on “Hee Haw”).

Does the sound of “Long Ride Home” - recorded in your living room  with legendary session musicians - capture a certain era in your musical history?

It’s the sound of my childhood in terms of that’s the sounds I was hearing as an eight-year-old and a12-year-old. By my teenage years I was listening to more rock or pop or jazz or singer-songwriter folks.

Did you have a period where you rebelled against country music?

It happened at about age 16. I’d had enough of the church kind of stuff my family raised me in and the music my family raised me in and I started branching out on my own. That’s why, again coming back to this sound and this kind of song and music is going back and feeling very privileged to have had this as my background. That’s part of the bigger reason of why it’s called “Long Ride Home.” I guess it has been. I’m now 52.

You actually wrote a couple of these songs when you were a kid, didn’t you?
Two of the songs I wrote when I was 16.

Did you stumble upon them in an attic or something?

I remember all this stuff. I do. I not only remember most of my stuff I remember most of everybody else’s stuff too.

Seriously? That’s amazing.

That’s why for an album like “Modern Hymns” I didn’t have any of the lyrics sitting in front of me. I don’t tend to have lyrics in front of me. They tend to already be inside. It stays in there. It’s one of the things that goes on with this particular brain that I have. It’s very helpful because I have a pretty good library of stuff in my head.

Why did you decide to include those two?

Partly because I wrote them with my dad (Wayne Scott). He passed away while I was working on the record. We did a duet on the record. He passed away before I released this thing and unbeknownst to me that’s how those things work out that I put two songs I wrote with dad and a duet (on the record). I think really I was ready to pay my respects to where I came from musically. There’s been country elements to my records all along, but it’s a multifaceted musical thing that gets me going. I’m not going to be making country records. This is just a great place to pay a visit. It was a lovely visit getting to play with some of the heroes, the musicians who made these sounds when I was a kid and literally there’s my dad on the record. There’s the photo of me. When you make the right decision creatively all this stuff comes in to support it. The right photograph, songs, musicians. It’s one of those things that lets me know I’m doing to right thing.

“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is one that many artists that have recorded your songs seem to be drawn to. Do people, especially those with coal country backgrounds, seem to be drawn to that one because of the subject matter?

Absolutely. I’ve seen it certainly in the artists who’ve covered it. It’s not just coal, but regional bluegrass bands in Colorado. It’s mining or really anyone who goes down in the earth. I’ve seen it done in Wales and Ireland and Northern England where there’s mining. There’s something about people who have a mining background. It’s something that seems to reach out to them, but I find when people don’t have that background it still speaks to them. But absolutely, the West Virginia and Kentucky stuff - they definitely get it. They feel connected with the song and have wanted to record it.

Why do you think those stories are so universal?

It’s part of, not just America’s past, but it goes deeper. There’s something archetypal because people have been sent into dangerous places to bring back the goods for the queen or the coal boss. People have been risking their lives for money from I would bet back to caveman times - “I’m not going in there, but whatever jewel you grab you give it to me when you come back.” I think it’s making somebody do something you wouldn’t do yourself. It’s coal. Yes. But it goes back further than that. It’s something mysterious and haunting and it’s true. It just comes to bear more obvious when we speak of coal. In any of our lifetimes we’ve heard of the horrible stuff and the fires and explosions or lung disease or the shoot outs and all that junk. For some reason coal holds all of that.

Coal songs kind of, to me, bridge the gap between the modern world and that ancient world where we would grab our poorest people and make them do shit we would never do.

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