Darrell Scott – A Crooked Road (2010)

Scott in the studio for a change (for me) after all the live stuff. And it’s quite different from the other discs I have that involve him.

Lessee… I first encountered Scott on Series 3 of the excellent Transatlantic Sessions. I knew nothing about him, had never heard of him, but there he was and some of what he did was quite interesting, especially his performance of Stuart Adamson’s “Shattered Cross“. Then I got those live albums I’ve reviewed already and then he popped up (in my world view) in Robert Plant’s excellent Band Of Joy project.

But all of those were Scott as sideman or working collaboratively. So the thing to do was to grab some of his solo, studio work in order to get a feel for pure Scott.

A little biographical backtrack: It turns out he’s a late starter as a solo act and songwriter. He’d been playing for years before relocating to Nashville where initially he worked as a studio player before other artists started showing an interest in his songs. He was in his late 30s when he released his first album under his own name. Even then he maintained his day job as a session player. The multi-faceted approach means that he has several revenue streams and thus could earn a good living from music without necessarily becoming a household name (which, given the variety of gigs he’s had, may mean more fun).

Most of his successful songs seem to have been in what we might call “adult country”, the thoughtful, well crafted aspect of contemporary country music. And that’s mostly the sort of songs and treatment that we get here. These are songs that could easily convert to a contemporary radio-friendly sound, make Scott some good money and have a little more intelligence and finesse than a lot of modern pop music. Billy Ray Cyrus he is not.

This album then, is far less roots or rock than anything I’ve heard from him before.

Everything is well crafted. Lyrically he has a tendency to accen-tu-ate the positive, e-lim-inate the negative. Which some might see as distinctly American as opposed to – so the theory goes, anyway – the more ironic, gritty approach of the British. He does touch on darker, more interesting subject matter, but he certainly doesn’t feel that his manlihood is compromised by wearing his heart on his sleeve and expressing his love for his family and family life.

We get affirmative, uplifting songs such as “Love’s Not Through With Me Yet”, the frank, almost artless expression of love for an absent lover in “Tonight I’m Missing You” (I hold this love up to the light /  I wish may I wish I might / I wish my arms could hold you tight) and many tender references to his children in “A Father’s Song”.

But if a title like “The Day Before Thanksgiving” has you anticipating a portion of Mom, Apple Pie, Old Glory and Jesus then you may be in for a surprise to find him deconstructing and disowning some of his country’s most potent traditions and folklore: “I don’t believe the pilgrims sat with Indians for a feast / A self-proclaimed holy sailor doesn’t break bread with his beast / But then again he had a musket and the Indian had a knife … I don’t believe this country’s manifestering destiny / Someone just cooked it up and it is fed to you and me“.

There’s range, then, to his song writing. Personally I liked his songs better when he goes into a more straightforward lyrical mode. The likes of “Snow Queen and Drama Llama” felt heavy handed next to, for example, the McCartneyesque title track with it’s  heart on sleeve lyric.

Everything is immaculately executed, and he does play EVERYTHING on this album. The versatility and multi-instrumental skills that marked his contribution to the Plant project are even more on display.

It’s a double album (would be two CDs worth if purchased in a physical format) and it has the sprawl (or range) that comes with that format. I can think of several double albums that would be more tightly focussed if they were reduced to a single (EG The Clash’s London Calling) but the flip side of the looser focus is the range of idea and expression, and that’s very much the case here.

And range… boy! Does he have it. He has a great feel for rootsier material, he can convincingly front a high-class power trio, he sprinkled sonic fairy dust all over the Band of Joy and now all these takes on a mature, thoughtful but adult-oriented rock. Is this the “pure Scott” that I was curious about? It’s hard to say, because Scott certainly does not walk the straight and narrow, and the world is a little more colourful for that.

It’s not my favourite though. I like it, I’m impressed by it, but it doesn’t have the live spark that I found earlier.  For the defence I’ll make the point that when you have to build everything an instrument at a time you’re unlikely to get the spark when fine musicians play together in real time. How could you? So there’s a trade off: Richer arrangements for “spark”.

But still, an impressive album with a lot of good playing and some fine songs.