Darrell Scott: Family Tree
by George Graham
(Sugar Hill 3894 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 05/12/99)
Nashville is a city of musical contrasts. On the one hand there is the well-known commercial country scene there, the which has been the source of a lot of genuinely bad music, as well as some truly memorable country classics. On the other hand, the active recording scene has attracted a lot of first-rate musicians, who left to their own devices, seek to break out of stereotypes. And since Nashville is one of the only music industry centers left where a substantial number of the artists do not write all their own material, the Tennessee capital has attracted an exceptionally large number of songwriters, who hope to place their compositions on the records of Nashville's hit singers. Even songwriters who come from different non-country backgrounds are finding the city a fertile ground with a good atmosphere for composers. Rock artists like John Hiatt have settled there, as have some of the bright lights on the folk scene like Tim O'Brien.
This week we have the second album by a fine singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist based in Nashville who usually makes his living working behind the scenes as a studio musician, songwriter and record producer. The CD is called Family Tree by Darrell Scott and it's a delightful, thoroughly literate, mostly acoustic collection of songs and character studies revolving around family members and relationships, Scott's and others.
Scott's professional songwriting career goes back to when he was in his early 20s and wrote a couple of hit songs in Canada for the group the Mercy Brothers. After living in Boston for a while, Kentucky-native Scott eventually settled in Nashville and has become an in-demand studio musician, playing on records by platinum sellers Reba McIntire, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood and writing some national advertising jingles. He is quite the multi-instrumentalist, playing various varieties of guitars, pedal steel, mandolin, dobro and some keyboards. Scott has also moved into doing some record production for other singer-songwiters, including Suzi Ragsdale, and Susan Werner. Werner's brilliant album Time Between Trains won our 1998 Graham Award for Producer of the Year for Scott's exceptionally tasteful work.
Two years ago, Darrell Scott released Aloha from Nashville an worthwhile and somewhat eclectic collection of material from himself and others, a tasteful and understated record that highlighted his fine playing. His new release Family Tree really emphasizes his songwriting, in a wonderfully coherent collection of songs revolving around character studies, in the conext of family relatonships. If this were the 1960s, it would be called a "concept album." A lot of it is written in the first person, and some of the character studies are clearly autobiographical, but others of the very convincing figures in the songs are imaginary composites. And interestingly, he includes a cover of a Steely Dan song, done in a laid-back acoustic style, that fits right into the theme of the album.
Though Scott plays a lot of the string instruments on Family Tree, he is joined by some tasteful Nashville pickers, including mandolinist Sam Bush of New Grass Revival, and Viktor Krauss, the bass-playing brother of bluegrass phenom Alison Krauss. Two of Nashville's most ubiquitous players are also present, drummer Kenny Malone and the late bassist Roy Huskey, Jr., who passed away not long after the making of this CD. Fellow acclaimed singer-songwriter Tim O'Brien also appears, and co-wrote one of the songs that appears on Family Tree.
Though almost everyone on this recording is associated with the Nashville music scene, there's not a country cliché to be heard, except perhaps for a bit of steel guitar on one song. The style is spare, intimate, almost entirely acoustic, and in some ways more reminiscent of the work of the better Texas singer-songwriters than the Nashville scene. Scott gives his own album the great organic and thoroughly unpretentious sound that made Susan Werner's release last year so memorable. Interestingly, fully half the dozen songs on this CD are in waltz time, which gives the album a distinctive flavor.
The CD begins with one of those waltzes, and one its finer songs that both epitomizes and frames the album, with a further chapter of the story providing a closing to the CD. My Father's House is the story of a boy's admiration for his musical father, who was also a complicated character and, as we learn, separated from the boy's mother. <<>>
A particularly sad song is Rhonda's Last Ride, the story of a hooker who commits suicide. It's a subject that was taken up in Paul Siebel's classic song Louise, though Scott's approach is quite different. <<>>
Continuing in 3/4 time is Lazarus Dies Again, an interesting update of the biblical story, placing the man who was brought back to life in a modern setting. The story also brings in elements of family. <<>>
One of the most musically attractive songs is Mahala a set of lyrics presumably about a young daughter. Providing a distinctive juxtaposition is the commbination of bluegrassy mandolin and the African influenced percussion. <<>>
The album features a medley of an original song with the old hymn Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The original song, called When There's No One Around was co-written with Tim O'Brien and features him on mandolin and backing vocals. <<>> While the reading of Circle really breaks no ground, but is nonetheless quite appealing. <<>>
One of my favorite pieces on the CD is a song called She Sews the World with Love, an enjoyable song about a significant other who is skillful with needle and thread, recycling old clothes into new creations. <<>>
The album's title track Family Tree is a good-time bluesy song about seeing one's family size increase without necessarily having the resources for it. Jonell Mosser is the other voice with Scott. <<>>
The most unexpected song on Family Tree is a laid-back mostly acoustic country version of Steely Dan's Any World (That I'm Welcome To). Lyrically, the song is a good choice, tying in with the family theme, and the arrangement works surprisingly well. <<>>
A charming piece done as a duo with Tim O'Brien is called The Hummingbird, about a childhood prank that destroyed a father's beloved guitar. <<>>
The album ends with a little reprise to the opening song My Father's House, in which the son becomes a father also playing his music and singing the old songs. <<>>
Darrell Scott's new second album Family Tree is a truly fine record that represents the best of the singer-songwriter genre: memorable songs, with appealing vocals, and a musical backing that is exemplary in its tastefulness. Lyrically, the album especially shines, with its literate style, and great narratives and character studies. Scott is quoted as saying that this could have been a double album, he had so many family-related songs -- but he picked the best for this collection, along with two covers from opposite ends of the spectrum.
In terms of production and sound, Scott again made an album that is a textbook example of the concept of "less is more," especially with acoustic instrumentation, as he did last year producing Susan Werner's CD. The sound is clean, bright and intimate, and a refreshing change from typical loud-and-dumb commercial pop. I might quibble about some of the added backing vocals that sometimes don't seem to add much, but overall, he really used the studio effectively to enhance the songs.
There are a lot of studio musicians around, who given the chance to make their own record, often can't seem to find their own sound, or may not be very good writers. Darrell Scott, despite spending much of his time playing for others, proves himself to be a significant figure on the singer-songwriter scene, as well as a versatile multi-instrumentalist and a very tasteful record producer.
(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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