It doesn’t really matter that Darrell Scott is the most original songwriter in country music, because he’s not really very country music-ish anymore. His lyrics are way too poetic, and his approach is way too literary, teetering on pretentiousness (and sometimes diving right over that cliff) in a genre where you’re just not supposed to do that. And his music is now some kind of strange jazz-folk-rock-Americana hybrid, full of hooks but not slavishly devoted to them. So of course he doesn’t fit in, somewhat legendarily, not that he cares anymore.
And it doesn’t really matter that he is a stunning guitar player who can take these great songs 100 different ways—as anyone who heard last year’s awesome Live in NC knows—because no one cares about guitar playing in these times. And it really doesn’t matter that his imperfect, weathered voice is capable of selling any emotion, at any time, in any setting, because, y’know, isn’t the whole singing thing just kind of old news?
So it really doesn’t matter that the 12 songs here are deep and funny and tragic and joyful and packed with symbology and bursting with openheartedness. No one wants that anymore. No one is going to go do backflips over ambiguous epics like “There’s a Stone Around My Belly”, where Scott revels in how close he is to the end of his life, and brags about how his friend had to hire a private detective to see where he’s gone (he’s in a cabin in Kentucky, which rhymes with lucky). And let’s not forget that he says his mindstate is a cross between Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. (In his online liner notes, he says this stone is actually his own belly, but also the stone of Sisyphus). Geez, old beardy dude, calm down with the sober meditations about mortality; sing about badonkadonks, or how you and your frat buddies used to drink beer for breakfast or something!
This album is obsessed with death, and endings, and failure. Scott’s songs have titles like “In My Final Hour” and “Let’s Call It a Life”. He covers “Shattered Cross,” a song by his friend Stuart Adamson, whom you all know better as “the guy from Big Country who killed himself.” Scott is not shy about expressing his feelings about his career never really working out the way he thought it would (“And the River Is Me”, “Do It or Die Trying”), or about his lefty political views (“I’m Nobody”, “Goodle, USA”). He’s also pretty tough on country music’s self-destructive spiral staircase: “We hurt the ones we love the most / And we blame it on Hank Williams’ Ghost”.
This level of introspection and willingness to engage with the dark side of the world marks him as the gothiest country guy still living ... but this too would be inaccurate, because there is also a lot of light here. Scott remains defiant in the face of the uncaring world, wearing that Sisyphus mask with panache and style. The tears he sings about at the end of “In My Final Hour” are tears of joy.
But, again, it doesn’t matter. Because Darrell Scott will keep doing what he’s doing, no matter who is listening, no matter how many records he sells or doesn’t sell, how many packed houses or half-full beerhalls he plays, how many other vastly-inferior acts sell millions of records to his dozens and handfuls. Because Darrell Scott is pretty happy in the role of Sisyphus, maybe even happier than he would be as a big successful famous guy. He will keep rolling that rock no matter who’s listening.
And it doesn’t matter to me either, because I’ll be listening. Even if I’m the only one.