"Most fans of country music have heard the work of Darrell Scott," noted Ed Bumgardner of North Carolina's Winston-Salem Journal. But few of those fans know about the man behind the music. As a songwriter and an instrumentalist, Darrell Scott has been a force behind some of country music's biggest hits and most critically acclaimed recordings of the 1990s and early 2000s. His songs have been recorded more than 70 times by other artists, including such well-known names as the Dixie Chicks and Garth Brooks. "It's like the Wizard of Oz," Scott told the Journal as he launched his own solo career. "I'm the man behind the curtain. Now I've decided it's time to quit peeking from behind that curtain and pull it on back."
Scott was born on August 6, 1959, in London, Kentucky. London is situated in Kentucky's coal-mining region, which Scott would write about in one of his most highly regarded songs, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," recorded by country superstars Brad Paisley and Patty Loveless, as well as by Scott himself. Scott's father, whom Scott described to Virginia's Roanoke Times as "a rough-edged mountain man," farmed tobacco and played country music on the side. The family moved north to Gary, Indiana, east of Chicago, joining thousands of other rural Southerners in search of work in the steel mills.
Scott started out playing in a band led by his father, getting a taste of the wandering musician's life when the band traveled to Alaska to perform for oil pipeline workers. He set out on his own at 16, playing in bars around Southern California, and then made his way to Canada to soak up songwriting lessons from the scene that had produced Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. A multi-instrumentalist by this time, he backed the veteran Canadian country band the Mercey Brothers on steel guitar and contributed songs to the group's repertoire.
After getting a musical education on the road, Scott followed it up with classroom schooling. He moved to Boston, another place with a strong songwriting reputation, and enrolled in a community college and later at Tufts University, where he studied poetry with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Levine. Continuing to write songs, he appeared at clubs and cafes in the Boston area, and by 1990 had settled into a weekly trio gig at the Warren Tavern in nearby Charlestown.
That year Scott was signed to a recording contract by the SBK label, and traveled to Memphis to record an album under the direction of veteran producer Norbert Putnam. His songs, most of them written in the middle and late 1980s, were ambitious and often downbeat creations; several of them vividly depicted Gary and its long industrial decline. SBK shelved the already completed album, believing that it lacked a potential hit single.
At loose ends, Scott accepted a friend's suggestion that he move to Nashville, although he had long steered clear of the mainstream country scene and its reputation for sheer commercialism. What he found instead was a city where musicians of many kinds flourished, and where there was plenty of work for someone with his high level of instrumental talent. Scott signed on with the touring band of singer-songwriter Guy Clark and began to land recording session work. As word of his abilities spread, he showed up on albums by such stars as Trisha Year-wood and Randy Travis, playing a variety of stringed instruments. Scott, quipped the Roanoke Times, played "just about anything with strings." He toured for a time in the band of mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush.
The songs that Scott had picked out for his unreleased album on SBK were stuck in legal limbo, but he continued to write new material prolifically, and in 1997 he issued the album Aloha from Nashville on the small acoustic-oriented label Sugar Hill. The album itself remained little known among general listeners, but the creative community in Nashville was paying close attention. Top singers and their artists-and-repertoire executives mined the album for songs, and "It's a Great Day to Be Alive" became a major hit for Travis Tritt. "Heartbreak Town" showed up on the Fly album by the fast-rising Dixie Chicks, and "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," a grim chronicle of coal-mining life, became the centerpiece of Kentuckian Patty Loveless's all-bluegrass release Mountain Soul.
Scott followed up Aloha from Nashville with Family Tree, and its title track was recorded by Darryl Worley. Executives assigned him to write songs with Tim O'Brien, a folk-bluegrass singer and instrumentalist who, like Scott, had an arm's-length relationship with commercial country music. The independent Scott was uncomfortable with the arrangement at first, but the two quickly became friends and productive working partners, as country superstar Garth Brooks recorded their "When There's No One Around" on his multimillion-selling Sevens album. "That remodeled my kitchen," Scott told the Winston-Salem Journal. Scott and O'Brien toured the British Isles, bringing Scott new fans, and Scott scored another collaborative chart-topper in 2000 with "Born to Fly," which he co-wrote and which was recorded by vocalist Sara Evans.
Scott and O'Brien also recorded the album Real Time in Scott's living room and released it on O'Brien's in-house label Howdy Skies, an even smaller enterprise than Sugar Hill. But once again it had an influence far greater than its modest sales might indicate, as Scott's composition "Long Time Gone" was recorded by the Dixie Chicks and released as the leadoff single on their Home album. An intricately constructed story song about a musician who returns home after seeking stardom, "Long Time Gone" took swipes at mainstream Nashville with its allusion to singers who "sound tired but they don't sound Haggard/They got money but they don't have Cash…" The dig didn't hurt Scott's reputation among his fellow songwriters, who honored him with an ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Performers) Songwriter of the Year award in 2002.
In 2003 Scott returned to the forgotten songs of the SBK album of 12 years before, recording new versions with a full band, producing the sessions himself, and releasing them under the title Theater of the Unheard on his own Full Light label. The album landed on several end-of-year ten-best lists, and Scott told the Roanoke Times that he felt "vindicated. It wasn't like I wore this badge to make somebody notice that I was angry or anything," he said. "I just knew the songs deserved to be out."
Theater of the Unheard featured British bassist Danny Thompson, and the two reunited (along with percussionist Kenny Malone) for 2004's Live in NC. That album showcased Scott's instrumental skills on such numbers as a ten-minute combination of the classic country songs "White Freightliner Blues" and "Folsom Prison Blues." One of the most versatile musicians based in Nashville, Scott was becoming better known to the general public, and was causing close observers of country and roots music to wonder just what he would come up with next.
Aloha from Nashville, Sugar Hill, 1997.
Family Tree, Sugar Hill, 1999.
(With Tim O'Brien) Real Time, Howdy Skies, 2000.
Theater of the Unheard, Full Light, 2003.
(With Danny Thompson and Kenny Malone) Live in NC, Full Light, 2004.
For the Record …
Born on August 6, 1959, in London, KY; raised in Gary, IN; son of a tobacco farmer and steel mill worker. Education: Attended community college in Bos ton, MA, area; studied literature at Tufts University, Medford, MA.
Performed in clubs in Boston area, late 1980s; signed to SBK label, 1990; album recorded but not released, 1991; moved to Nashville, c. 1992; played in touring band of Guy Clark and others; released Aloha from Nashville album on Sugar Hill label, 1997; placed several songs on albums by top country performers including Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks; released Family Tree, 1999; Real Time (with Tim O'Brien), 2000; Theater of the Unheard, 2003; Live in NC (with Danny Thompson and Kenny Malone), 2004.
Awards: National Songwriters Association, songwriter of the year, 2001; ASCAP, songwriter of the year, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Full Light Records, P.O. Box 40100, Nashville, TN 37204. Website—Darrell Scott Official Website: http://www.darrellscott.com.
Boston Globe, November 15, 1990, p. Calendar-8.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), November 13, 2004, p. Arts-10.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 20, 2000, Arts & Entertainment section, p. 30.
Roanoke Times (Virginia), January 23, 2004, p. 1.
Sing Out!, Winter 2004, p. 120.
Winston-Salem Journal, November 20, 2003, p. Relish-8.
"Darrell Scott," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 19, 2005).
Darrell Scott Official Website, http://www.darrellscott.com (March 19, 2005).
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