Darrell Scott is country music’s most prolific unknown songwriter. Even if you have no idea who he is, you most certainly know his work, which has been recorded by multiplatinum artists like Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, and the Dixie Chicks, who won a Grammy with “Long Time Gone”, a song originally featured on Scott’s album with Tim O’Brien, Real Time. With deftly cutting lyrics like “They sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard” (from “Long Time Gone”, a song bemoaning the rise of new pop-country), Scott has cemented a place for himself in roots music as one of its premier poets, even if he tends to be overlooked as an artist.
Modern Hymns sees Scott using the words of others for a change. It’s a collection of the singers and songs who inspired him as a young man (his reflections on these songs in the liner notes are worth the album’s purchase price alone, even if he does appear to have some sort of capital-letter phobia), and his take on these works is almost reverent as he ranges stylistically from lively bluegrass to sparse acoustic guitar to African-American gospel.
The album begins with Gordon Lightfoot’s “All the Lovely Ladies”. Perhaps it’s sacrilegious to prefer a cover to the original, but Scott’s version is clearly the better of the two. With the second track, Joni Mitchell’s mournful “Urge for Going”, Scott transforms the song with a breakneck bluegrass arrangement, complete with Del and Ronnie McCoury providing harmony vocals and mandolin backing, respectively. Again, another cover that’s not only better than the original, but better than the myriad other cover versions done by everyone from Tony Rice to Charlotte Martin.
A former session player himself, Scott enlists a lineup of above-average pickers as well as some A-list guest stars, and even some pretty big name inanimate objects: “John Hartford’s Guitar” is credited in the liner notes for Hartford’s “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore”. Bluegrass buddy Tim O’Brien lends some mandolin and vocals to the Paul Simon song “American Tune”, while Mary Gauthier and Alison Krauss contribute their voices (Krauss’ vocals serving as an angelic counterpart to Gauthier’s roadworn rasp) to “Joan of Arc”. On this classic Leonard Cohen tune, Scott also employs a string orchestra as well as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group renowned for their performances of African-American spirituals and slave songs.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers contribute to one of the most beautiful songs ever written: Adam Mitchell’s “Out Among the Stars”. If by the end of the song you don’t have tears rolling down your cheeks, there is a very real possibility that you don’t have a soul. “Stars” begins with the Singers performing a verse of gospel song “Farther Along”, but the song changes direction and location with whiplash speed, going from church pew to a Texas liquor store mid-robbery. As Scott states in the liner notes, the song is like a film where “what isn’t said may speak louder than what is said (and what is said is beautiful).”
It seems as though Darrell Scott has found a complementary home with the socially conscious folk label Appleseed Records. If anything, Modern Hymns is a prayer for a troubled world; we may be a mass of weary, burdened travelers, but, to paraphrase Scott quoting Lightfoot, we’re also on the road to better things.