I was a honky-tonk musician; no rehearsal, you’d just show up and play Merle Haggard tunes or whatever, pick up your pay, and go home. It wasn’t so much about the music, more about getting paid the 50 bucks.’
Roots are important and in a world where we’re all thrown into the maelstrom, they’re too easily mislaid. But, when I speak to Darrell Scott – interrupting his work laying a gravel road to his cabin at his home 20 miles outside Nashville – it’s clear he’s a man with no such problems. Born into a home where his early Sunday morning wake up call was often the roar of Johnny Cash blasting through his father’s sound system in the living room, Darrell Scott is as rooted to music as the soil he’s shifting in the Tennessee backwoods.
A few years back, when Darrell brought out his album A Crooked Road, the title could not have been more appropriate. Of all the unlikely paths life might have had in store for him, Scott’s transition from jamming in country honky-tonks, through to revered Nashville songwriter and touring with Robert Plant, is the stuff of fantasy. A consummate musician equally at home on guitar, mandolin, pedal steel or banjo, for more than three decades his finely-etched songs have found favour with artists like Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, and The Dixie Chicks. In-between times Scott’s been an in-demand session man, worked solo and, on days off, found the time to tour with his buddy Tim O’Brien.
Yet if you had the good fortune to catch Plant’s last incarnation of the Band Of Joy in action, with Scott’s banjo and pedal steel bringing old Zeppelin chestnuts like ‘Gallows Pole’ and ‘Black Dog’ to a chilling climax, you would have thought that he’d been born into the job.
Chuckling down the phone Darrell agrees. ‘It was great. I loved it. I was the kitchen sink guy. Buddy Miller produced Robert’s record and let him decide on a studio band. We had bass and drums, Buddy on guitar, and me jumping around playing the mandolin and pedal steel. I’d stopped playing as a sideman 10 years ago,’ he points out. ‘Obviously Robert had to be an exception, and I really enjoyed dusting off instruments that I hadn’t used for a while. The record was recorded in the first two weeks of our playing together, but it’s a shame we didn’t get to do it at the end of the tour.’
‘The vocals with Robert and Patty (Griffin) singing were always fantastic; it was a good old-fashioned band and as much as it was Robert’s band, it wasn’t just Robert Plant with a backing band. I’m really proud of my contribution and there was some great, exciting music.’
You could say that James Darrell Scott was baptised into country music. Born in what he calls “Depression-era tobacco farm Kentucky”, he describes his parents as being “denizens of country music” who ran their own family band.
‘I started out on the bass guitar when I was six years old, but as my older brother was good at guitar beyond his years, and could play all the Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins stuff, I became the bass player. But I didn’t mind. The bass was an amazing place for me to start and I managed to demystify the songs so when I did get over to guitar, I already understood how all the chords worked.’
With a brother who felt anything less complicated than playing the music of Chet Atkins was below him, Darrell set out to copy the licks of Luther Perkins, Johnny Cash’s guitarist. ‘My Pa loved Johnny Cash. My first guitar was a solid-body Baldwin, then when I was 15 I had my first paying gig up in Alaska, playing in a bar band. I saved enough money to come home and buy a Fender Telecaster Custom and that was my main guitar forever – I didn’t really get into acoustic guitar until I moved to Nashville and played pedal steel. I taught myself and would have the Tele in my lap so I could go back and forth in a song – take the first half on the Tele, then dive straight onto the steel for the second part! But on the honky-tonk circuit that meant you were a lot more employable, made you a better call.’
When he was 18 Darrell left the familiar world of his family band to hit the singer-songwriter trail. ‘I rebelled! I was still playing country music, but what I aspired to was the singer-songwriter world. Stevie Wonder is a songwriter and so was Hank Williams, but I could see that the genre didn’t matter so much and the musicality wasn’t so important. To me what was important were the songs, people like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Jackson Browne, then later on Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clarke – it’s where I felt I belonged. My folks were so 100 per cent country, that when the Beatles and the Stones happened, I missed it all, and I’ve only now gone back to hearing some obvious things I should have heard in 1968!’
His latest album The Long Ride Home sees Darrell returning to those country roots. ‘It’s taken me 30 years to make a real country record,’ he reflects. ‘Others could say that there were country things along the way, but this is where I’ve really come to terms with my heritage. My other albums had shades of pop and bluegrass – I did run away from it, but I’ve been in Nashville for 21 years now, so I guess it’s time.’ With a clutch of Nashville’s finest on hand, and recorded with copious amounts of moonshine, though… ‘I didn’t let them have it until the work was all done,’ he points out. There’s an air of mild incredulity in his voice as Darrell recounts the roll call of musicians.
‘I got the best of the best,’ he says. ‘When I was listening to records in 1968 these were the musicians that were on those albums. Pig Robins, who plays piano, was on almost everything. Lloyd Green was one of the top pedal steel players and if you heard harmonica, then it was always Charlie McCoy. People think Nashville’s only country music, but Charlie McCoy was the session leader when Dylan came to Nashville to record Nashville Skyline and Blonde On Blonde, and Pig was on those sessions, too. He played on just about everything. Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen – Pig was always there. If you get to make a country record, you just go to the Union Hall and they have all their names and details; you just call them up and ask them if they’re interested. All those guys still just love to make music.’
You’re obviously in awe of those guys. Do you think that it’s easier in the States than in the UK for musicians to get recognition as they get older? ‘I was at a BBC Two awards show a couple of years ago and my friend Danny Thompson was getting a lifetime achievement award. One of the last things Danny said was, “Hey, my phone still rings, I still play. Don’t make this award for the coffin.” I could tell, by him saying that, that he was conscious of it all. Musicians of that calibre and experience are indispensable – you can’t get that from a younger cat. You can get something else from what they bring but only Danny Thompson can bring what he brings. When I called those guys for my album, I wasn’t just going down memory lane – although there’d be nothing wrong if I did – I’m going down memory lane with some of the greatest players out there.’
Darrell admits to owning around 80 instruments, a mouth-watering collection of old mandolins, banjos, and guitars. ’There’s some weird stuff, but I’m not a collector,’ he admits. ‘Each instrument has its own voice, and one of the great things about recording is finding the right voice for a part. My favourite guitar is one that Martin Simpson found for me, made by Stefan Sobell. When I play live I just grab a guitar and go, and right now that’s the one.’ And the secret of playing so many instruments in different tunings? ‘I crack the logic – the mathematics of how an instrument should be played. I can apply all my guitar knowledge to that instrument, play it quicker and better than you think I ought to,’ he says. ‘But, deep down, I still feel that I’m really a guitarist playing banjo, pedal steel and mandolin – it’s not like being a real mandolin player,’ he laughs.
Darrell Scott’s Long Ride Home is out now.