No slouch of a songwriter himself, Darrell Scott spent years on the road with recently deceased master songwriter and former Houston resident Guy Clark. Scott, who returns to the Mucky Duck Thursday for an early show, spotlighted Clark in “Down to the River,” the opening tune on his recent release, Couchville Sessions, which includes the line “Guy and Townes made a stew down in Texas/ And brought the whole hog down to Tennessee.”
“I was trying to cram 60 years of singer-songwriter history into a very short space,” Scott laughs. The tune mentions Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan et al., and trails off with a touching overdub of Clark telling a story about trying to write a song about two crows who lined their nest with the skins and bones of baby rattlesnakes.
“Every night since Guy passed, I’ve opened the show with 'Down to the River' and segued into 'Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,' and that just does a number on everybody,” says Scott. “There near the end, it was hard to see him suffer like he did, but I wouldn’t trade those last few times I saw him for anything. Even in the Vanderbilt hospital, he was holding court, still telling stories, still interested in other people’s stories. That was one of the main things about Guy; he was central to meeting people. He was the one who introduced me to Ramblin’ Jack, to Terry Allen, to Steve Young, giants like that.”
Scott got a somewhat accidental co-write with Clark on the tune "Out In the Parking Lot."
“Guy had a bunch of verses to that, maybe a dozen verses, so it was way too long," he says. "That was another thing I learned from Guy; it’s better to edit down than to edit up. He kept saying he wasn’t satisfied with it enough to record it or play it in shows, and one day when we were looking at it, he said, ‘What would Bruce Springsteen do with this?’ So I had my guitar and started tinkering around with something that sounded like 'Racing in the Street,' and from there we edited the verses down and not long after, we came out with the song.”
Asked about his favorites from Clark’s vast catalog, Scott ticks off “Old Time Feeling,” “The Dark” and “Instant Coffee Blues.” His favorite Clark album is Keepers, a 1997 live album recorded over a three-night span at Douglas Corner in Nashville. It features Scott, Clark’s son Travis, legendary drummer Kenny Malone (who sometimes plays with Scott), guitarist Verlon Thompson and Scott’s wife, Suzy Ragsdale.
“I think Guy felt like those first albums for the bigger labels were a bit overproduced, so he wanted to record those songs again without any interference or advice, if you will," Scott says. "Guy was a lifetime artist; this wasn’t some get-rich-quick or get-famous scheme, this was a life in art. That’s what separates people like Guy from most of the people scurrying around Nashville trying to figure out a shortcut to get a deal or get a hit, what to wear, how to look, how to market yourself. Guy had a very long view; he wasn’t in a hurry; there was no desperation to be some big thing. You have to respect that.
“Think about it — here’s this '70s singer-songwriter who suddenly gets a Nashville record deal and that’s not what he was really after, but there it was, so he did it," he continues. "But he knew the real story wasn’t who can get a deal. If you go with a label, what you mostly get is counsel and funding, some money invested in making you a big deal and counsel on how to become a big deal, what to record to become a big deal, what sound to go for to become a big deal. And, of course, that’s how you sell your soul to them, how you betray your true creative instincts in favor of a plan. If you sit down and listen to all of Guy’s music, he made his best albums after he got loose from the labels. Sure, he made some solid records for the labels, but he truly made great art when he made records for himself.”
Scott recalls a funny moment only a few days before Clark passed that distills Clark’s sense of humor and outlook.
“Guy was holding court in his hospital room; he even got out of bed,” Scott recalls. “Rodney Crowell, Keith Sykes and I were there and, just like he always did, Guy wanted everybody to pass the guitar around and play some songs. Rodney asked Guy how he was feeling that day and Guy looked over and said, ‘Like ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag.’ I swear he’d just been waiting for someplace good to drop that line. That was so him.”
It’s funny that someone as talented and accomplished as Scott is so under the radar in Houston. Part of that is Houston’s fault, part of it his own. Scott was heckled and disrespected when he opened a show for Clark at Rockefeller’s, and didn’t come back for nine years, until his previous gig at Mucky Duck in 2007. He’s been back in the area one other time since, at Dosey Doe in The Woodlands.
“I avoided Houston for a long spell there,” Scott laughs. “Then when that Sunday night at Mucky Duck sold out, I had to rethink some of my attitudes. Where I tour is mostly determined by my booking people, but I’m glad to be getting back to Houston.”
Hopefully Houston is ready for the Tufts University graduate. One of the most literate writers in Nashville, Scott majored in literature and poetry, and that has paid off as a slew of artists ranging from Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt to non-mainstream artists like Dave Alvin and Mary Gauthier have dipped into Scott’s catalog for tunes to record. Scott’s "You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive" has been covered by numerous artists, and two different versions have been used in the FX TV series Justified. His tune “Hank Williams Ghost,” from his album Invisible Man, was named the Americana Music Association's Song of the Year in 2007, and his 2004 album Theatre of the Unheard was named album of the year at the Independent Music Awards. His 2010 album Crooked Road took the same honor in 2011.
A world-class guitarist who also plays accordion, pedal steel, lap steel, mandolin and banjo, Scott was part of Robert Plant’s Band of Gold and spent a good part of 2010 touring with the former Led Zeppelin front man in an ensemble that included Buddy Miller, Gurf Morlix and T-Bone Burnett. He has collaborated with Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Mary Gauthier, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien, with whom Scott has recorded a couple of albums.
As he moves forward, Scott says he intends to follow Clark’s example.
“I pay for everything myself, so I don’t want anyone else’s opinion about my work,” Scott explains. “That means the decisions about my art are mine and mine alone. I believe if you’re in this for the right reasons, artistry supersedes money.”
Darrell Scott performs 7 p.m. Thursday, June 23 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Portsmouth.