PERHAPS you don’t know Darrell Scott by name, but you certainly know his songs. If Travis Tritt’s "It’s a Great Day to Be Alive," the Dixie Chicks’ "Long Time Gone," or Sam Bush’s "River Take Me" ring a bell, you’ve heard Scott’s lyrics and chords at work: those are all his original tunes, covered by top stars.
The GRAMMY nominee has worked alongside Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien and many others. In 2010, he joined Robert Plant in Band of Joy playing mandolin, guitar, accordion, lap steel, banjo, and several other instruments.
Scott arrives in Savannah ready to promote his first solo record in four years, Couchville Sessions, due for release on April 8. While at SMF, he’ll also work with the fest’s music education program.
We caught up with Scott about writing, teaching others to write, covering, and being covered.
You’re releasing a new album, your first solo record in four years.
I’m looking forward to that! I’ve been off for a year and a half, and that record is a good chunk of what I did creatively during that time off.
I needed time off. I’d been hitting road for number of years and sort of wanted to upset that comfort zone as well shake things up, but also work on that record to finish it.
Is it easier for you to set aside time to write as opposed to writing on the road?
I used to be able to write when I was on the road, but I think the road has sort of changed gears in the last few years. The road now sort of looks more like what a truck driver does when they’re hauling freight from one town to another. ...Those kinds of things don’t have a lot to do with creativity.
I think taking time off is an invitation for songs, the finishing of records. You almost have to make yourself not be on the road to have that option.
What’s your process like?
It’s different all the time, it seems to me—and part of my job is to be open to that difference rather than relating my process over and over or repeating my style over and over. If I’m conscious of repeating, I probably should just leave it alone, is my general tactic. The best way to say it for me is, when I force that kind of stuff, the work reflects the force, and a forced song is not the best song to me.
You’ve covered some of your favorite songs on this new album.
They’re songs I’ve known, in every case, since I heard them, to tell the truth. ‘Big River,’ I’ve known that song since I was six because of my dad being a huge Johnny Cash fan. Same with the Hank Williams song. I can’t ever remember even learning those; that’s like asking, ‘When did you learn ‘Jingle Bells?’’ They’re that much a part of the fabric of my childhood.
Why did you choose the songs you chose?
For starters, each one of those songs, the people who wrote them are great songwriters. Those aren’t the only ones—they’re far from the only great songs those people have, they have a bucket-load of great songs. Those are the ones that fell out those days when I was recording them. It wasn’t a big strategy or plot even.
Sometimes I look for slots on an album to lighten up a heavy subject. If I’m going to do a cover, I choose lighter songs of those people as opposed to bringing in heavy songs; it can feel like I have too much. It’s a thick record, so I wanted to balance it out with a little bit of a lighter approach.
You’ve written so many hits. Do you have an idea when you’re writing if something’s going to be a single? Do they emerge after you’ve put the album together?
Honestly, I don’t even think in terms of singles. In my world, if it’s the Americana radio world, I’m not even sure they have a thing called singles. The industry is turning that way, but it wasn’t that long ago that Americana was you put out an album and the radio stations that play it would choose the ones their listeners want to hear. A Texas Americana radio station is different than Manhattan, New York Americana station.
And so I don’t even think of that stuff when I’m putting a record together—I’m putting together what I feel is a good, balanced record in terms of style, subject, treatment, and so the singles don’t even come into mind.
I know algorithmically, people listen to the first song more than they listen to the last song, so I’ll put that together knowing if you’re going to listen to one song here, listen to this one, and if you’re going to listen to two songs, listen to these two. I hate to be so simplistic, but I think that’s how people listen anymore.
Honestly, when you live in a world of single song downloads, never even paying for the listening of a new album, it’s a changed environment in which to put out a record, honestly.
Do you write differently when you’re writing for someone else?
As a general rule when I write, I write what I want to write. It seems like everything takes care of itself in ways that are important to me. Any time I try to second-guess the market or people’s taste, it’s not a successful situation, it’s never fruitful, it’s never a better song. It sounds like it was a brain activity instead of a full human activity of creativity.
What do you usually cover in your songwriting workshops?
My go-to is to write about something that’s meaningful to them, maybe even push the envelope a bit, maybe to write something that scares them, a subject that is a stretch to break up the comfort zone, if possible. And so that might be part of it, and checking it out student by student, song by song.
I tend to come back to that kind of place with students, and these students are brilliant. I was in Savannah two years ago, maybe three, but there’s no doubt of how sharp and talented and how well-studied they are as students. I think they’re the cream of the crop. I’ll probably learn more from them than they will from me!