Darrell Scott takes his songwriter credentials as seriously as anyone in the game. When he released a covers album, Modern Hymns, in 2008, he worried that fans would think he had hit a patch of writer’s block. During both radio shows and stage appearances, Scott would insist that the covers project was not an indication of a dry spell in original material and that, in fact, he had plenty of his own songs stored up.
He wasn’t lying. Those originals come pouring out on the new 20-song double-album, A Crooked Road, a project that strengthens an already formidable body of work from one of Nashville’s most respected song-doctors and session players. Scott wouldn’t appear to have much to prove; he’s already received a pile of Grammy nods and other songwriter awards, and heavy-hitters like the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, etc., have all earned Scott some serious royalty checks by releasing versions of his songs. But on A Crooked Road, Scott sounds like he’s set out to prove it all.
For starters, Scott plays every instrument and provides every vocal heard on A Crooked Road. This feat isn’t particular surprising coming from a renowned multi-instrumentalist like Scott. The one-man-string-band thing happens now and then, most recently by Ricky Skaggs on last year’s Songs My Father Loved. But Scott goes much further by layering in not only exquisitely played guitars, banjos, and mandolins, but also dobros, cellos, pianos, organs, accordions, basses, drums, percussion of all sorts, and multiple vocal harmony tracks.
Scott’s own records—A Crooked Road is his fifth solo collection of originals—live somewhere amid neo-bluegrass, folk, Americana, singer-songwriter traditions, and the new album finds him turning away from the heavier electric mode of his previous couple of releases and returning, for the most part, to the quieter acoustic folk he started with on his first two albums.
The opener and title cut, for instance, is an elegant piece of finger-picking that explores classic folk-song archetypes, using road-as-life metaphors. The song is built on a simple structure with a lyrical focus that flirts with cliché, but it’s an understated beauty nonetheless. The song, as with the rest of Road, contains hard-earned wisdom from this deeply thoughtful lyricist—he walks a crooked road and can only “see the straight and narrow” once he looks back on it.
This record takes plenty of turns away from traditionalist folk-song patterns, but even on those with fairly straightforward progressions, the songs burst with intricate beauty in Scott’s hands, as he embroiders each song with runs and riffs and countermelodies, changing time-patterns and tempos, altering picking patterns and dynamics, and intertwining guitar, banjo, and mandolin appregios. The record is also the most impressive document yet of Scott’s husky, soulful singing, which is both tender and tough, and he sings gorgeous harmonies with himself throughout.
While Scott has shown a tendency to meditate on distressing world plights lately, Road finds him turning inward and writing about finding himself at the crossroads of turning 50 and examining his complex relationships with his wife and kids. “Long Wide Open Road” tells the familiar story of a marriage that starts blissfully but grows restless and disintegrates. “A Father’s Song”, a gentle piano ballad, chronicles the costs and benefits of being both a dad and a troubadour: “I’ve missed Father’s Days and birthdays”, he admits, conflicted by his duties at home and the fire that burns inside of him to make music on the road.
Those songs are found on the first of Road‘s two discs, the stronger of the two, as it also includes two short but intricate guitar instrumentals, “Alton Air” and “Pester Lester”, both quite lovely, and the excellent “Candles in the Rain (Childless Mothers)”, the kind of big ballad that other artists would be wise to cover. The second disc is a more electric affair, with a couple of full-band tunes, including “Love’s Not Through With Me Yet”, a sweeping song with Scott adding drums, a B3, and a dramatic electric-guitar solo, and “Snow Queen and Drama Llama”, a blues-rock slammer, showcasing Scott’s harder singing voice; he’s a convincing belter in that power zone, and he flashes some filthy slide playing. Still, the song is too bombastic to fit in here and leaves Disc Two feeling disjointed.
“Colorado” also shows up here, a song Scott has been playing to blissed-out festival crowds in the Rockies for a couple of years now. “Tonight I’m Missing You” is another pretty ballad, but Scott can be stubborn about avoiding neat, predictable resolves, refusing to return to title-hooks at the ends of refrains, for instance, which renders his songs original, yes, but not always memorable. On the other hand, “Willow Creek” is another terrific instrumental—there are four of those total—this one dobro-driven; it’s enough to root for Scott to record a whole record of these.
“This Time ‘Round”, a final piano ballad, reads like a career musician’s manifesto, taking inventory of a life on the road and a list of resolves moving forward. He’s a pilgrim on life’s highway, unrepentant in some ways (“There is no need to damn me/I will go where I must go”) and as determined as ever to get it right (“Gonna lay my heart wide open/This time ‘round”). He’s going to have plenty of opportunities to prove it this year, heading out with these new songs and also joining Band of Joy for a summer trek, a dream team along with Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and Byron House backing Robert Plant.
Despite all of his success, Scott continues to see himself as somewhat of an outsider. “Lines were made for crossin’ / I was born to crack the code,” he sings on “The Day Before Thanksgiving”. It’s true that he shuns overt attempts to gloss up these recordings, in part because he knows that platinum artists continue to shop in his aisle for songs to record, but moreso because he writes, sings, and plays with a singular vision and incomparable integrity.
Could this set have been cut to a single disc, making for a stronger album? Oh, maybe. After all, a project like this one is inherently self-indulgent, especially since it goes on so long, but trimming to a single disc would require some heartbreaking cuts, and having a surplus of intelligent, impeccably played songs is hardly something to complain about.