“Do it in the privacy of your room, in your sanctuary. Do it where it’s safe because some people jump out before it’s, so to speak, safe and then the laughter or lack of applause or the comment or something can turn somebody back to where they’ll never come out and do it again.”
John: This week on Art of the Song we welcome award-winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott to the program. Currently a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, Darrell’s songs have been covered by artists as varied as Keb’ Mo’, Patty Loveless, Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Kathy Mattea, and Brad Paisley.
Viv: Darrell’s roots are in the hills of Appalachia and his music is bone-deep. He’s known for never singing a song the same way twice, which makes each performance something unique in time and place. A true artist, Darrell touches our humanity with a pure form of love that comes to us as the song. This program was recorded in front of a live audience in Albuquerque at the Outpost Performance space as part of the Concerts and Conversations Series with Amp Concerts.
John: It’s good to have you with us Darrell.
Darrell: Thank you, thank you.
Viv: So, you flew in today from Nashville, which is where you call home now.
Darrell: Yeah, Nashville’s home.
Viv: You’ve been there quite a while.
Darrell: 20 years I think now.
Viv: Tell us about how you got started and what brought you to this place of being a national touring musician which have been cut, sung, and performed by so many amazing people. You have a catalog of truly astounding music. If you would just let us know how you got started.
Darrell: It was a family band. My dad was a musician. All my brothers played. So, we grew up as a family playing music. It was kind of second nature to play something. I rotated on a few different instruments. I started on bass because I had an older brother who was a great, great guitarist so it meant he had the guitar slot. So, I played bass and bass was a great place to start with the foundation and knowing where all the chords are and all that. Then, later on, I got more into guitar. It was the family band that really got me started. With my dad, he was a country music guy, playing honky-tonks. As a matter of a fact, we played a bar here in Albuquerque when I was 18 years old. A place called Carnival. Does that sound familiar to anybody?
John: The Caravan?
Darrell: The Caravan. That’s it.
John: The Caravan East.
Darrell: I played the Caravan East and West, I think.
Darrell: That was back when I was 18 years old. So, I was playing honky-tonk music in my dad’s band, and then my brothers, we had a band together too, playing gospel and church stuff. Early on, that was it. Brothers or my dad or both.
Viv: What did you learn most from being out on the road gigging all the time?
Darrell: Really having the axe in my hand for five sets a night. I would be better on my instrument at the end of the night then I was at the beginning at the night, because I was also young-ish and you’d literally have the axe in your hand and you’re literally coming up with solos. You’re coming up with intros and turn-arounds and outros. On-the-job training from a honky-tonk point of view. Playing bars and clubs is an amazing place to learn stuff. Then, there’s a point where you stay too long in the bars it’s not good. It has a way of not getting past that at a point. You play clubs forever if you don’t watch out. I would very mindfully take myself out of some of those situations, just because there was a musical horizon pushing me forward, either as a player or, eventually, as a singer and a songwriter.
John: That brings up my next question. When did you start writing?
Darrell: I started writing when I was twelve. My dad was also a songwriter. He would write at home and he’d have a new tune or something like that. I had an older brother, too, who wrote songs. So that was allowed, so to speak, in the house. It was going on. So, I started pretty early. I didn’t show anybody my stuff for a long time, even though I was in a household of musical stuff. Still, the songwriting to me that I was doing was more like journal kind of stuff. It was my private area, so it wasn’t like I wanted to publicize it, even throughout the house. As the story goes, my older brother found a lyric of mine. He didn’t know it was mine. He just found a lyric around the house and he actually thought my dad wrote it. He put a tune to it and then he said, “Hey dad, listen to this! I put a tune to your song or your lyric.” And my dad said, “Well, I didn’t write that lyric.” So, I had to fess up that it was my lyric. So, I guess I was out of the closet at that point.
Viv: So, nowadays, you’re a multi-instrumentalist, you play not only strings but piano, how does your writing manifest? What happens when you sit down? Do you sit down to write songs? Do they come to you in a lightning bolt? What’s your process?
Darrell: The process is to wait until I have something to say because anytime I’ve done something other than that, it sounds like it’s a forced song. I don’t really like the result of a forced song, so I stay away from forcing myself to write. I wait till I have something that’s burning inside me or processing in me to say, then you can’t stop me from doing it then. It’s one of those acts of kindness I’ve learned for myself is to not face a blank page, because I don’t like how that feels. I’d rather face a page when there’s something I just can’t help it, I’ve got to say it. Then out it comes. Otherwise, I’ve got a lot of other things, just living to do rather than that self-discipline of writing. I’m not a self-disciplined songwriter.
Viv: I love that. The act of kindness toward yourself. Not to force yourself into a position when you’re facing something that you can’t do anything about.
Darrell: Yeah, I think writers do great damage to themselves by forcing themselves to face blank pages or feel like they have to get something done. I just don’t find it fruitful. If it were, I would practice it too. But, for me, if I don’t have something to say and feel motivated to sit down, then I know enough to not make myself sit down and write. So, here’s what it means, I’ve gone as long as 9 months without writing a song so far. Then, I’ve written a few times, two songs in a day. Somewhere in there is my calendar. The catch is to not be too put off by the 9 months and to not feel like, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m worthless as a songwriter because I haven’t had something in a while.” Again, if that berating of ourselves would help, I’d be glad to do it. But it doesn’t make for better songs. It doesn’t make for better art.
John: You studied English and poetry in college. How has that affected your writing?
Darrell: By the time I got to college, I was 23 as a freshman. So, I was older than some of the other students. By the time I got there, I had already been playing the road for many, many years. Then I moved up to Canada and played up there for about three years in a traveling band that did original music. But it was very unsatisfying, so I quit, and I went to college as a 23-year-old. To me, that quitting was really important because I really needed to know what it would be like to not do music. Since I came from a family band, I felt like I was ordained into this work. By 23, I’d just had it with that, and I decided to go to college and not study music but study English, and literature, and poetry. The funny this is, after I got my degree and studied a lot of poetry, I came back to songs with what I’d learned in poetry, then found my way back into music basically. What I found in poetry was a great freedom of writing and words and things that a 3 to 4 minute song sometimes, if you’re following the charts or even influence by the charts, which is hard not to be if you grew up in the 60’s or 70’s, I was listening to country music or there was pop music around, but the poetry world had a freedom that I really, really liked and I was really drawn to. Less rules. Instead of writing about love or a relationship all the time, it was wide open, and I liked that wide open place. So, when I got back to songs with my Poetry or English degree, it had transformed my songwriting, basically. I had gotten out of the jail of the 3-minute song approach. I really haven’t looked back. It was like, that’s my path and I’ve been walking it ever since. And that’s about 25 some years ago now.
Viv: I’m interested that poetry was a freeing form for you because it is a pretty rigorous form in that I don’t know a lot about it, but the editor is huge. Knowing what to take out and what to leave. For me, with reading poetry, I always get the sense that there is exceptional clarity with what the poem is to be, what it’s to bring about. How does that work with songwriting? Was that a fairly easy thing to meld together?
Darrell: To me, I don’t know if it’s easy, it’s just the way it was calling me to go. I’m a better songwriter than I am a poet, which is why I didn’t continue. I was going to get a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. It was either that or come back to songs. Really, what made the decision to me was that I had a body of songs that finally had my writer’s voice in it. I recognized, ‘Ok, that’s me right there. That’s my upbringing. That’s my way of looking at things.’ It wasn’t just a chorus or a verse or even one song. It was a whole body of songs. It was like, ‘Ok, that’s familiar to me, I will walk that way.” With the poetry, it was a great feeding and an inserting of that. I can’t say that my output as a poet was much to consider at all, which is really good. I’m glad I came to songs because I knew songs. I know songs. I know music. I really didn’t know the poetry world, but I really, really, I still do, as a matter of fact, get a lot out of reading it and being a part of that world, even at arm’s length. I’m not a practitioner, but I still recognize the freedom that’s in there.
Viv: There’s a wonderful marriage between the music, your musicianship, and the lyric writing. How does the music support your lyric? How do you choose the instruments that you use? Is it instinctual or is it something that is an intellectual process that you look at? ‘I think it needs this’ or is it mostly an instinctual process where you’re reaching for the next right voice to add?
Darrell: I’d say it is instinctual. To me, when I hear your question, it’s in reference to recordings more than, say, live. Although, you know, if that piano were available tonight, I’d be playing that. If someone brought a banjo, I’d play that too. So, the live performances are me hauling around a guitar because it’s easy to get onto a play and off a plane with. But, in the studio, at home, I have over 80 instruments and they run from weird banjos to weird mandolins and piano-things and guitar-things and all that. In that domain, yes, I do, see them as having different voices. It’s very intuitive basically, why I grab that instrument for this overdub. It’s instinctual. Basically, the way it works is you grab it and play it and if it works you, you know it, and if it doesn’t, you know that right away too. So, it’s kind of a trial and error kind of thing. For me, I’ll try anything. I don’t know if that answers your question because I kind of went to recordings as an answer.
Viv: No, that’s perfect. There’s such an emotional response with some instruments and some timbres that really highlight what it is that the song is bringing forward lyrically. I’ve always been really impressed and engaged by your songs in that way on the recordings.
Darrell: Well, the funny thing is I never feel slave to those recordings. So, if I play the bouzouki on the record, I’m not going to play bouzouki tonight. I may play it in a different key. I may play it on a different instrument. To me, that sort of freedom that I was talking about with poetry is still something I’m seeking really on a nightly basis. Each performance is its own thing. It’s meant to be. I don’t really go from town to town aping myself. Or aping a show or setlist even. For example, tonight I won’t have a set list either. The idea with that, to me, is to be in the moment. I want to pay attention to the way my voice is, and which should be kind of interesting tonight because I’ve got a cold or something. But I’ll shift the keys around. I’ll shift the approaches. I won’t sing as loud perhaps. So, it’s kind of music in the moment, while still being true to the text of a song and the general arrangement I suppose. Unless I feel like extending solos, and then I’ll do that. The freedom that I was talking about with poetry is the same freedom that I would find by just making it up tonight as I will. I believe I’m still being true to the song, but I’m taking liberties all the time.
Viv: It sounds like having identified that voice and really gotten to know that voice, and have accepted that voice, and gotten to walk in that way as you were saying, that’s a tremendous amount of self-trust and trusting of what’s coming through that that’s the right way.
Darrell: Yeah, it is. I talk to students sometimes in songwriting workshops about how you can practice that. That’s not a bolt of lightning kind of deal, either you’re inspired or you’re not. You can practice being on the edge. You can practice not knowing what’s coming next. So, our initial result or reaction to something like that is complete fright. And, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know what’s coming next and I’m going to fall apart’. But you can practice pushing that fall apart. You can practice that like you can practice a tennis serve or a G chord, or a bar chord if you don’t know how to bar chord. It’s the pushing of that, in essence being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. To me, it’s a riding a fine line between those two. To me, it’s an honest place. That point of ‘I don’t know if this is going to fall apart of if this is going to be brilliant.’ The bottom line is you have to be able to handle either way it goes…. including the falling apart because that might just be part of the outcome sometimes. But that’s a comfortable place for me to be. I’m not really good at playing the same thing over and over. I can’t play the same solo twice. I can’t phrase the song the same way twice. I just honestly can’t. I don’t have it in me. I can sing the song, but I can’t do it the same way. There’s something in me that literally can’t do it. It’s not like I decided not to. I don’t think I know how to do it.
John: It sounds like you’re really being focused in the present moment when you’re in that place.
Darrell: Yeah, I think that’s the job description. That’s what I’m supposed to do.
John: You make your living being creative with your writing, with your performing. Creativity seems to come naturally to you. What would you offer to someone who is just trying to find their own creative voice, whether it be music or art of just living each day like a work of art? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Darrell: Just begin. Most of us start, myself included, when I talk about how I would hide my writing until my brother discovered it. Do it in the privacy of your room, your sanctuary. Do it where it’s safe because some people jump out before it’s, so to speak, safe and then the laughter or the lack of applause or a comment or something can turn somebody back to where they’ll never come out and do it again. So, start in a place that’s safe and that’s more like a sanctuary and be as creative as you could possibly be. Then, I guess, start inching out once in a while from your room to see how it goes out there. It really is an act of trust. I think a good place to start is right in your room, a safe place.
Viv: That’s great. Many of your songs are like mini-movies. There’s an incredible visual component to them. What do you want people to take away from your music? Do you have any desired outcome for it? Or is there anything you want people to hear in particular?
Darrell: I’m not really sure. I like the idea that songs could be interpreted different ways. Or a verse that I might be certain what I meant by it never occurs to someone else or vice versa. I’m not trying to be coy with that. I kind of think the songs are like a journey. So, within a particular song and it’s subject and its mood and its environment and all that, I’m trying to paint a picture of what that is like. That character or whatever is going on in that song. So, if making it more visual will help to do that, it’s fair game. Or if making it more sparse will help, do that, I’ll do that. Or more complicated with production or whatever. To me, it’s all fair game. I guess I would like folks to have a journey because it is for me when I’m singing a song or something like that. But, you know, the guitar player in me also knows that not everybody listens to lyrics, so maybe they’ll get something out of the harmony. Or they’ll get something out of the composition. There are so many parts to songs. People aren’t going to listen to every word. I’m thinking that maybe if they heard even the groove of something it implies something that’s already within the song lyrics. You know what I mean? It’s a multi-faceted little beast, these songs.
Viv: You’ve had a tremendous career. Is there a defining moment for you?
Darrell: I don’t know. One of them would be when I started playing on Guy Clark records. That would have been a good defining moment. Being able to make records with one of the great master songwriters that we have. I remember I played on a demo or two of his. But then I remember the morning that I got called to make a record and be in Guy’s band for a studio band. I went down to the local music store in Nashville and bought a real deal guitar. Prior to that, I had like a $300 acoustic guitar, but literally the morning of the Guy Clark session I went, and I bought a $3,000 guitar because I thought if I start playing with Guy, I need to have some good stuff. I would say that was a defining moment because I now committed to instruments and I was in with one of the masters from the inside. Right on the inside of working on one of these records. Yeah, I’d say that was about as good or better than anything I’ve done.
Viv: You’ve co-written with Guy Clark as well.
Darrell: We’ve done it twice. I’ve known him 25 years. So that’s two times in 25 years. I’m not very greedy in that department. We probably should write another one sometime. Yeah, the second one we wrote was one called “Out in the Parking Lot”. Guy has recorded it twice. I’ve just recorded it too as a duet with Guy on my new record. That was a good one. That was a good get-together.
John: Darrell Scott, thank you so much for talking with us today on Art of the Song.
Darrell: My pleasure. Keep it up. It’s great.