october 2008

Where We All Stand Enlightened

By David McGee

Darrell Scott
Appleseed Recordings/Full Light Records

When last we heard from Darrrell Scott the solo artist, it was 2006 and in The Invisible Man he was contemplating some weighty existential questions spurred by the death of his friend Stuart Adamson, founder and voice of the formidable Scottish rock band Big Country, and he had enlisted Dan Dugmore, Richard Bennett, Sam Bush, John Cowan and other titans of our times to assist him on his journey. On Modern Hymns he's not exactly dispensed with his existential angst, but rather is exploring its manifestations in the songs of some of his favorite artists, attended by a supporting cast every bit as formidable as that encountered on his previous long player-namely, upright bassist Danny Thompson, Dirk Powell on fiddle, banjo and accordion, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie and Del McCoury (on mandolin and harmony vocal, respectively, on Joni Mitchell's "Urge For Going"), his compatriot in Steve Earle's Dukes, Casey Driessen (on fiddle on Dylan's "I Don't Believe You"), with vocal assists from John Cowan, Mary Gauthier, Alison Krauss, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Suzi Ragsdale and others. If Modern Hymns is not quite the all-consuming spiritual inquiry that The Invisible Man was, it's no less a spiritual outpouring in terms of the passion expended on every lick and vocal. Many times it's overtly spiritual: Adam Mitchell's "Out Among the Stars," begins with Scott, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and an emotional Jonell Moser singing a verse of the powerful gospel standard, "Farther Along," and then continues the gospel approach as a tale unfolds of a weary wanderer's travails and yearnings for release from earthly bonds; a powerful, full-bodied production of Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc," with its tortured heroine in poignant reflection as the flames consume her on the pyre, summons a singularly holy aspect on the strength of Scott's parched, dispassionate vocal as the fire and Mary Gauthier's and Alison Krauss's dignified, unyielding voice of Joan framed by an ethereal female chorus and a brooding string quintet, with the Fisk Jubilee Singers entering with a low, ostinato rumble at the six-minute mark of the near-eight-minute epic articulating the beauty, tragedy and dramatic grandeur of its subject's mission; Kris Kristofferson's "Jesus Was a Capricorn," musings on the holier-than-thou attitudes, shall we say, that might greet the son of God were He to return to this mortal coil, trucks along on a down-home blues framework with an added boost from Odessa Settles's gutsy testifying support vocal, Stuart Duncan's plaintive fiddle and Scott's own expressive dobro interjections; Hoyt Axton's "The Devil" is a no-holds-barred sprint, breaking from the gate as a spirited holy-roller call and response jubilee (with Scott's chorus numbering Odessa Settles, John Cowan, Suzi Ragsdale, Danny Flowers and Kathy Chiavola) into a hard charging bluegrass workout with gospel overtones and a furious instrumental charge led by Powell and Duncan's fiddles, Thompson's upright bass and Flowers's dobro. A spiritual song in its own right, Paul Simon's "American Tune," the most familiar of these well-chosen covers, dispenses with Simon's gripping, atmospheric orchestration in favor of a stark, stripped-down mood with a country flavored feel supplied by a restrained, nuanced quintet of banjo (Powell), upright bass (Thompson), fiddle (Duncan), guitar (Scott) and, on mandolin and strikingly emotional harmony vocals, Tim O'Brien, all the better to emphasize the urgency the narrator imparts in "the age's most uncertain hour." No one will mistake for a spiritual John Hartford's satiric lament for a vanishing Nashville night life, "Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Anymore," but Scott clearly feels Hartford's pain and, with vocal help from Jamie Hartford, John Cowan and Sam Bush, presents it as a down-home gospel quartet outing. All this, plus some lighter moments provided by a jazzy, pastoral take on the Lyle Mayes-Pat Metheny instrumental, "James" and a deconstruction of the Dylan song as a pop-jazz item. At the end Scott returns to his unstated them by way of the quiet benediction that is Guy Clark's winsome explication of haunting memories, "That Old Time Feeling." It comes right out of the church hymnal, thanks to Scott's Southern Baptist piano stylings and, notably, the Fisk Jubilee Singers' majestic backing, soaring heavenward here, moaning low there as Scott drives the song's emotions outward and inward, finally resting gently in a place of peace, where we all stand enlightened. Many thanks, Darrell. Modern Hymns does a body good.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024