While the demo tape-carrying waiters and baristas of Nashville fantasize about hitting it big as a session player, songwriter or performer, Darrell Scott has been a key figure in each of those realms for some time now.
After getting noticed for his solo albums, Scott had a fortuitous streak of Top 40 success in 2001 and 2002, when his songs went on to be covered by Travis Tritt ("It's a Great Day To Be Alive"), Sara Evans ("Born to Fly") and The Dixie Chicks ("Long Time Gone"), the latter of which netted a Grammy. That doesn't include the oft-covered modern mountain classic, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive."
In 2007, Scott won Song of the Year at the Americana Music Award for "Hank Williams' Ghost." These days, he finds himself winding down his touring duties as a member of Robert Plant's Band of Joy and getting back on the road, ready to introduce material from his new album, Long Ride Home.
Speaking to us from his home in Nashville, Scott offered up some eccentric and philosophical thoughts on the state of Americana music, singing with the guy from Led Zeppelin and how a song can leave the room out of spite while it's being written.
So, when you were growing up, dreaming of musical stardom, it must've been totally normal and expected when you started touring with the singer of Led Zeppelin, right? No, that was a pretty odd one, actually. That's one I would've never dreamed. The good news was that Robert [Plant] didn't want to do Led Zeppelin all over again. He expressed how he really wanted to morph and follow his own muse. The path that started with his last record [Raising Sand with Alison Krauss] led him to Nashville and to connecting with Buddy Miller, and then that led to Buddy calling me to be a multi-instrumentalist on the record, and then to Robert deciding that he wanted that band out on the road for a 13-month tour. It started out as a record, but turned into a great band project.
Well, it's a pretty big deal to get to work with Buddy Miller, too, isn't it? It's been a great learning experience to work with both Buddy and Robert. With Robert, one of my roles was to sing harmony, and when the instrumentalist in me got to play guitar with Buddy, that was great, too. It was a wonderful thing to lift my voice with Robert and Patty [Griffin] and then to play guitar with Buddy. So I was an entertained guy.
So many come to Nashville to either play, write or sing. You've been getting work doing all three. Was that your strategy for success? It was never an exact strategy of mine. These are just abilities, or tools, that I have. The way I work this stuff is sort of like that Steely Dan song, "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)." It's a great song and it's how I feel about that subject. I'll walk through any door that's open to me. I still do. I feel very lucky, because the writer part of me has been fortunate and has had a lot of stuff going on. The player part of me has played in some great sessions and on some great records, and the artist part of me has put out eight or nine albums, and then I got to be in Robert's band. I just walk where I'm welcome. I won't crack my head against a window hoping that someone will let me in; I'll just go to someone who says, "Hey, come over here." I don't have a work-related or a star-climbing strategy. Why the hell would I want to be where I don't feel welcome, you know? I just slither around, chameleon-style between the writing, playing and performing worlds.
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Given how much live performing you've been doing, whether it be solo or with Band of Joy, would you say that the performer world is where you're most welcome right now? Yes, I would say that, because it's where I've been able to express a fuller blast of my artistic self recently. Going out and playing my own shows is an expression, obviously, because it's just me. It's not me playing someone else's songs in a session. Of course, it's all music, and I love it all in some way.
You've become a revered figure in the Americana scene over the past few years. What is Americana music to you? Roots music. I love that Americana is so hard to pin down. As soon as it gets too easy to understand, it may detract from the wonderful music that it is. It's a funny spot between Americana being promoted, talked about and understood, then defined. Once it's defined too specifically, it will get pigeonholed for everyone. I kind of like the hard-to-define place that the music is in. I want the music to be as free as it can be. It can be whatever the hell it wants to be. I mean, there's great Americana being made in Canada and even Ireland, so I don't mean for Americana to imply flag-waving or that it's only from here in the states. I do still think Americana is an alternative form. Bluegrass fits into Americana. Honky-tonk fits into Americana, and Texas Swing does too. I love that Americana's just a big, ol' messy catch-all that no one knows what the hell it really is. I want to keep it as weird as it can be. When it's defined, its power will be gone. Instead of that campaign in Austin to "Keep Austin Weird," I want to keep Americana indefinable.
Now that you've had a string of success writing hit songs, do you often catch yourself writing songs with a specific artist in mind, or does that come later? I try to just write. I do have those thoughts, but have to just keep them away if you can. I guess there are times where that can be healthy, but when you're in the throes of writing a song, that's the very thing I don't want to be thinking about. As soon as that part of the brain kicks in and you think, "Oh, this will be perfect for so-and-so," or "My girlfriend will really like this," the song may very well leave the room. The song is then telling you that you just wanted to be patted on the back and it is gone. I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much. I can't think of where a song will be placed or where it will end up, or I'm just a marketer or a consultant. I've just removed myself from the very act of writing and moved myself into song-pitching. I try to bring it back to the song, or you won't have a song.
Darrell Scott performs Thursday, January 12, at Poor David's Pub.