People trying to make good music in Nashville more or less follow Darrell Scott's every move. He came on the scene with his Aloha from Nashville album six years ago, and it was an absolute gold mine of top-
quality country songs, on topics ranging from the usual ("It's the Whiskey That Eases the Pain") to the extremely unorthodox: "Banjo Clark" used a minstrel-show banjo tune as the point of departure for an epic reflection on the banjo's African origins and the trials its enslaved players endured.
Since then, Scott's name has been attached to some of the most accomplished songs on the country charts — Garth Brooks's "When There's No One Around," Travis Tritt's "It's a Great Day to Be Alive," Patty Loveless's searing "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," Sara Evans's "Born to Fly," and, most recently, the Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone." That song gained attention for Scott's swipe at the creatively wan singers who've dominated Nashville over the past few years:
| They sound tired, but they don't
They've got money, but they don't
Those who listened beyond its little tidbits, though, heard more: a remarkable little odyssey, deftly shifting temporal frames over the course of three verses, of a wannabe-star who moves to Nashville and then finally returns home, bemused to find the traditional life that seemed "a long time gone" still ready and waiting.
Scott grew up, he says in one of his songs, "on the Indiana side of Chicago," seeing Lake Michigan in the light of a "steel-mill sunset." He went on to study literature at Tufts University. His output seems to vacillate interestingly between songs with a populist touch and those with folkier, more interior, more involved texts. Each album he makes (there are now four) has its own theme and unifying flavor; his latest, Theater of the Unheard, collects songs written more than a decade ago, many of them blue-collar anthems written under the strong influence of Bruce Springsteen. Like many productions of young songwriters, they've got a bit too many ideas packed into too little time, but nobody else is doing this kind of song these days. They're well worth hearing when Scott brings together the various strands of his output in his local debut at the Ark on Wednesday, October 8.
The Dixie Chicks recently pronounced Scott one of the great writers of our time, and he's equally pervasive and influential as a performer. A soulful vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist who has mastered such things as the bouzouki in addition to the usual country strings, he has appeared on dozens of Nashville albums as a sideman. Scott produces his own recordings and has a knack for forging arrangements that match his words. The songs on Theater of the Unheard get big rock sounds, while the delicate "Mahala," a love song from the very personal Family Tree, floats over a quiet pair of African percussion instruments.
In spite of all his talents, Scott isn't well known except by those who keep an ear turned toward Nashville songwriting. He's the best thing to come out of that city's hothouse songwriter nights in quite a while. Give him a try.