Darrell Scott – Household man
Three-year-old Gabriel Scott is lying on his back in a guitar case, floating on a placid, moss-colored pond and gazing at the sky. That image adorns the cover of his father’s new CD, Family Tree. The idea, says the senior Scott, came from photographer Senor McGuire, who had come by the house to shoot a standard poet-in-residence album cover. Given the chance to be demoted to a cropped profile on the back (Gabriel, tossed into the air, is also the center of attention there), the self-effacing Scott thought that was just perfect.
This prepossessing cover, and the CD within, offers a concise picture of where Scott — 39 years old, settled, and respected in a variety of Nashville circles — has his priorities these days. Its 12 cuts are a satisfying union of confessional poetry, consummate musicianship, and Scott’s own deft production. The tight orbits they pursue around the theme of family give the CD (his second for Sugar Hill) an extra measure of coherence and heft, and their largely autobiographical subject matter offers explanations as to why this inordinately talented musician is more a household man than a household name.
In varying degrees of detail, the listener meets Scott’s trying father and the mother who left him, Scott’s own first wife (he married at 20; it didn’t go so well), and his family of today: wife Sherri, daughter Mahala, and sons Gabriel and Abraham. We’re even introduced to the house he took over half-finished from his father in the early 1990s when Scott moved to Nashville. And the improvements he makes in the last verse of “My Father’s House” on what is now a rustic homeplace twenty miles out of town become a metaphor for the arduous process of building a life and a career out of an upbringing that might easily have left him stranded on the Hillbilly Highway.
Scott was born in rural Kentucky and grew up largely in Chicago, where his dad found work in the steel mills. He learned music from the Grand Ole Opry and an older brother, and started playing bar bands when he was 14. With virtually no expectation of going to college, he became an itinerant musician, playing five and six nights a week. That lasted ten years, through stays in California, Canada (where he was a member of the Mercey Brothers), and Boston.
Then, through a remarkable series of events, he set music aside for a time to attend community college. That led to scholarship at Tufts University, where he studied with poet-in-residence Philip Levine, a 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner. When Scott made the inevitable return to music, he found that literature had focused him and helped complete the transition from bar-band musician to mature songwriter.
“I found a lot of freedom in poetry,” Scott says. “You don’t have to talk about love [all the time]. There’s a whole world out there. You can talk about your life.”
While still in Boston, he landed a recording and publishing deal with SBK, a New York firm that parlayed its success into a record-label imprint with EMI. Though his album got spiked, EMI broadened Scott’s songwriting horizons by setting up meetings with Guy Clark, Verlon Thompson and Tim O’Brien, artists with whom he still enjoys close relationships.
In his second songwriting session with O’Brien, the pair penned “When There’s No One Around”, the title track for O’Brien’s 1997 release and a cut on Garth Brooks’ Sevens. The brush with Garth-dom wasn’t too odd for Scott, who makes most of his living as a session player for Music Row’s name acts (Suzy Bogguss, Pam Tillis and Kathy Mattea among them). He recently has dipped into the production waters himself, steering projects for singer-songwriters Susan Werner and Suzi Ragsdale.
If he weren’t so happily committed, Scott would have a good shot at being a Big Deal. His baritone voice has the quality of classic soul; his songs are warm and approachable. And he loves to get a band rocking with Little Feat-style Southern grooves. But he admits to being a terrible self-promoter, and he has only a handful of duo dates with Tim O’Brien planned in support of the new CD.
Besides, the big time would be out of character. “I’d have to put on another hat — a business hat — that I don’t really want to put on,” he says. “It’s the music that I like. The performing of it and getting out [on the road] doesn’t turn me on like I think it’s supposed to. I don’t know why that is.”