There are a slew of new albums out with spiritual and political angles, but none approaches the subjects as obliquely or ultimately as effectively as Darrell Scott on his slyly titled Modern Hymns. With a bevy of Nashville’s A-list roots pickers onboard, Scott works his way though a dozen covers by artists like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. While most of the songs are hardly the hits these artists are known for, they've spoken to Scott over the past 30 years and, more importantly, still speak to him - only here they also speak through him with impressive oration.
Part of the album's genius is its underlying purpose: to bring these powerful but lesser-known songs back into our consciousness in this moment of failed bailouts, falling confidence, fatuous spirit-killing political tomfoolery and Sarah-Palin-for-Vice-President cynicism. Seldom has one artist taken such a wide range of material and, without exception, rendered versions at least as penetrating and vital as the originals, if not better for the thoughtful interpretation, glorious singing and crisp playing.
From the opening strains of Lightfoot’s “All the Lovely Ladies” to the fade-out of Guy Clark’s “That Old Time Feeling,“ each song is in some way delivered as an examination of the human condition. The overall impression is one of the Staple Singers performing with a pop-tinged bluegrass band, and the results are glorious and uplifting.
Houston’s Mickey Newbury didn’t deal in bullshit, and there's no bailout on “Frisco Depot,” which a pre-Outlaw Waylon Jennings also essayed valiantly. In Scott’s hands, it's a bucket of tears and failed expectations, everything country music and songwriting were about until Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins got their brains around how to dumb country music down enough to make it cross over to the pop charts. Scott‘s version of “Frisco Depot” ain’t likely to cross over to the pop charts anytime soon.
With his upbeat bluegrass arrangement, Scott actually makes Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” into an Appalachian hand-clapping barnburner. He also delivers amazing versions of some obscurities that only Wikipedia remembers, like Adam Mitchell’s “Out Among the Stars” with its brilliant setting in the opening lines: “It’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas, it’s closin’ time, another day is done, when a boy from off the streets he points a pistol, he can’t find a job but, Lord, he’s found a gun.”
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Scott counterbalances songs like these with Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” that seems to have presaged this moment in history 35 years ago. Scott’s soulful arrangement of John Hartford’s “Nobody Eats At Linebaugh’s Anymore” recalls Nashville's faded glory, shooting a big middle finger at the corporate-think that led to a threat to tear down the Ryman Auditorium, which for years had been hailed by Nashville city fathers as “the mother church of country music” yet was marked for demolition to make way for a parking lot.
Linebaugh’s was a little diner around the corner from the Opry, and Hartford’s line “where can you go to see the country music stars, that’s what we come to Nashville for, no one comes around to play the pinball machine, nobody eats at Linebaugh’s anymore” rings out today like a call for revolution in Middle Tennessee. In closing, Scott’s quiet hymnal reading of Clark’s “That Old Time Feeling” should knot your heart up and make you wish you had a glass of cheap spirits; if it doesn't, you probably need to see a surgeon or a spiritual advisor because your senses are failing.
If you’re not a lyrics person or you believe Sarah Palin bested Katie Couric intellectually, you can skip this one. But if you are a lyrics person - and I hesitate to say it, but if you are a spiritual person - dim the lights, get down on your knees, and push play, because here is one of Nashville‘s most legitimate and revered talents laying full force into some deep, deep, deep songs and making them his own. If there is an anti-Christ, this is the anti-Nashville. Hallelujah. - William Michael Smith