Darrell Scott: Loving Life Way Outside the Nashville Mainstream

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Since moving to Nashville in 1995, 52-year-old Darrell Scott has had a career most who take that Hillbilly Highway to Music City USA would envy. A triple-threat talent, Scott was for years a session warhorse, a guy who could play about anything with strings on it as well as possessing a fantastic ear for harmonies and an angelic voice.

He also wrote songs, lots of songs. Many were picked up by mainstreamers like Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Travis Tritt, Faith Hill, Brad Paisley and Martina McBride. The Dixie Chicks had hits with two Scott songs, "Long Time Gone" and "Heartbreak Town."

His song "Hank Williams' Ghost" was Americana song of the year in 2007, and "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" has been covered by a bevy of artists such as Paisley, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and Zakk Wylde and been featured twice on episodes of FX's Justified.

But that's only the highly visible, touching-the-mainstream side of Scott's work. His 2005 rock album, Theater of the Unheard, was the Independent Music Association's album of the year, and his 2011 release, Crooked Road, was named country album of the year by the IMA.

Less well known even is the fact that Scott was Guy Clark's sideman for many years. He not only has written numerous songs with Clark, he produced Clark's 2002 release, Dark, as well as Clark's monumental 1999 album Cold Dog Soup.

Not convinced yet? In 2010 Scott was selected to be a part of Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant's Americana ensemble, Band of Joy. Yeah, he's that good.

Rocks Off caught up with Scott via phone after his performance at last week's Merlefest.

Rocks Off: Your new album Long Ride Home is a bit of a throwback, and only more so due to your using Pig Robbins, Charlie McCoy and Lloyd Green. They're all legends. How did you get them for this project?

Darrell Scott: That's one of the real beauties of living in Nashville, you can just reach out and get these monumental session guys. Nashville has always been very unionized as far as session work goes, so it really was as easy as going to the union book and looking them up. Then it's just a matter of are they available and will they do it.

It's funny, you see some guys just chuck it all, sell their equipment and move to Florida one day, and never want to play again. But then you've got some guys who are lifers. Charlie, Pig and Lloyd are lifers. They enjoy playing. They'd play even if there was no money.

RO: How does an independent artist like you afford to have these kinds of players on an album?

DS: The sad fact is they get paid the same as any other session guys given the union rules here. On the other hand, if they cost the same as some new hot shot, why wouldn't you call these super-pros for your session, especially if they fit the sound you're going for.

RO: It's a very vintage-sounding record.

DS: It's a little different voice for me. But that classic-country sound is what these songs seemed to demand.

RO: There's some great songwriting on display, but for me "I'm Trying Not To Love You" hits like a soft punch in the face.

DS: I wrote that with a guy named Jim Rushing. We wrote that one before he packed up and moved to the wide open spaces of Montana.

RO: Mark Germino often points out that the visible mainstream Music Row side of Nashville is not a representative picture of the place. What's your take on that?

DS I think for a lot of us, Nashville is a nice place to live and a great place if you want to make music. And for lack of a better word, there is a huge underground existing in Nashville and the underground is alive and well.

The versatility you encounter among musicians in this town is unlike any other place I've been. If I was home, I could look in the paper and find at least a dozen worthy acts playing somewhere in Nashville tonight. But, yes, there are definitely two Nashvilles.

It's also a place where it's easy to hide. For a long time, I was sorta sleeping in several camps at the same time. Like I would be in L.A. playing a show with Guy, and I'd catch the redeye back to Nashville because I had a 10 a.m. session. Most people don't do that.

One thing you have to understand about Nashville is how disjointed things are. Some guys do sessions, some people write songs, some people are road dogs. But day in day out, those segments are generally pretty unaware of each other.

Almost invisible. But for a long time, I was one of the guys who was actively involved in all the parts. But I think someone could only do that for so long.

RO: Vince Gill is in the Hall of Fame, but was recently let go by MCA. So he's out on the road with a bluegrass band right now, and knowing Vince I'd bet that is what he wants to do or he wouldn't do it. He was interviewed earlier this week and said he had basically been shown the door. He also said he'd like to see more country in country music. Is that sour grapes? What are your thoughts?

DS: I wanted to be part of the mainstream when I came to town. But I quickly realized and will tell anyone who'll listen that you have to be careful because that shit is finicky and the winds will whip you around. As far as Vince being let go by MCA, look at the '80s, when all of a sudden Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash didn't have record deals.

But Vince is a lifer, he lives to play and I'll bet he'll be fine wherever he lands. And happier. Look at Johnny Cash, who made some of the most important records of his life during that Rick Rubin period after Columbia let him go.

RO: What happened to your desire to be part of the Nashville mainstream?

DS: I always wanted a career outside of Music Row. I used to do all the session work I could get. If someone called and I had an opening on my calendar, I took the work. And one day I just asked myself why the hell am I here in some studio with people I barely know playing on some songs I don't give a damn about.

I'm not saying it was all that way, but there was enough that I started to question the value of it outside the money. It was killing my spirit and it was taking time away from me that I could use to play or create something I cared about. So my first withdrawal from all that was to stop doing sessions unless it was somebody I really wanted to work with.

I also stopped writing for the radio machine. That and session work I really didn't care about were getting between me and what I was supposed to do with songs that were coming through me. At some point, all the parts of it had to be true for me or I just didn't want to do it anymore.

RO: Nashville is a co-writing town these days. How does that work for you?

DS: I don't really co-write in the sense of doing it for a job every day. But I do like to write with certain people like Tim O'Brien, Guy Clark, people I'm on the same page with as far as what we are reaching for versus hey, we need to have a song finished by 5 o'clock. I'm not interested in grinding out songs I won't remember I wrote in a month.

RO: Are you a lifer?

DS: Yeah, I can't imagine doing anything else. Music for me is so open, so freeing, I don't want to do anything else.

8 p.m. tonight at Dosey Doe Coffee, The Woodlands.

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