Singer-songwriter Darrell Scott is in the basement of Famous Music, a well-known publishing company in Nashville, teaching a new song he's written to a handful of fellow musicians. It's 10 a.m. on a weekday, fairly early for most musicians, but he has a stack of new material he'd like to start recording so he can get some new demos in circulation.
In the last few years, high-profile producers and artists on Music Row have come to rely on Scott's blockbuster résumé, with cuts like the Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone," Sara Evans' "Born to Fly," Travis Tritt's "It's a Great Day to Be Alive" and Darryl Worley's "Family Tree." In the Americana realm, where listeners expect more depth and darkness from their artists, people fall hard for gripping narratives like "Double-Headed Eagle," "My Father's House," "With a Memory Like Mine," "Stone Around My Belly" and "Do It or Die Trying."
The first song to learn this morning, "Long Wide Open Road," recalls a familiar theme in Scott's repertoire, namely what transpires when somebody skips town with dreams of a better life. Sometimes the story turns out all right (like "Born to Fly"), but often it's devastating ("Heartbreak Town," recorded by the Dixie Chicks and "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," recorded Patty Loveless as well as Brad Paisley).
Scott, 46, accompanies himself on guitar while keyboard player Gabe Dixon and drummer Kenny Malone listen intently. Bass player Tim Marks arrives shortly after Dixon calls him to come over. Focused on the lyrics as well as the melody, Malone imagines the rhythms he'll play, tapping his knuckles on the walls of the studio which is painted turquoise and about as large as a two-bedroom apartment. The only musical aid available is a sheet of white paper marked up with the Nashville number system, an enigmatic series of digits, circles, diamonds and bars that is a common language to local session players but cryptic and confusing to the casual musician.
But these guys are pros. Scott sings it again and their first run-through together makes it sounds as though the musicians have known the song all along. In "Long Wide Open Road," the man and woman innocently make eye contact, then they officially meet and marry, but when she gets restless, they split up. The man goes on alone. But Scott worries that the new song sounds too linear because it has six verses and no chorus. The music itself still needs something.
Trying to convey the arrangements he hears in his head, Scott tells Malone, "You can't treat this like Swiss cheese," meaning there are too many gaping holes where he'd rather hear percussion. In other words, the drummer can't take the percussion completely out of a middle verse because listeners will assume the next verse is also the final verse -- and they'd be wrong. At Scott's polite request, engineer Brian Kolb sharpens a pencil. Right away, Scott and Malone rearrange some numbers to inject more drama into the narrative.
The maneuver works, and that's part of the secret to Darrell Scott's appeal. His music is carefully crafted without being precious. At times, it's almost too much to bear. The Invisible Man, his fifth and most recent solo album, takes a head-first approach into delicate subjects, including death, war and politics. (It also broke all previous merchandise records at the acoustic music festival Merlefest this year, selling 913 copies over a long weekend.) His prior album, Theater of the Unheard, was beautifully written and yet so dark and intense that it's almost impossible to listen to casually. If nothing else, his resonant baritone underscores many of his less sunny songs.
"I don't mind the dark, intense thing. I can't help it," Scott says later. "But my hope is that I'm not stuck there. I'm hoping there's a brighter side to it in the work."
Scott was born in London, Ky., but grew up in East Gary, Ind., as well as California. When he was 8, his mother separated from the family, and his father was left to raise five sons. As a teen, Scott was playing California roadhouses and eventually met his first wife. They married when he was 20, but the lyrics of "Long Wide Open Road" reveal how the relationship began to dissolve. "I gave her all I could and she looked around for more," Scott sings. Later, as the couple tries to stay warm over their first winter, Scott adds, "But a colder wind was blowing," and things don't look promising.
The second recorded take is played back in the control room. Aside from a few tweaks, everybody approves. Now it's time for overdubs with Dixon on organ, Scott on banjo and Jelly Roll Johnson on harmonica. Johnson has just arrived after getting the phone call that morning, and he nails his mournful part in a matter of minutes. The banjo lingers as the session for this particular song is coming to an end.
A week later, Scott returns to the Famous basement studio to hear the mix, now with harmony vocals from his girlfriend Suzi Ragsdale and studio veteran Joy Lynn White. (Scott's entire house is wired for recording, but he hasn't yet learned how to operate the system.) During playback, he scratches a few words on a small yellow Post-It note. Kolb then spends about an hour adjusting various levels in the song, scaling back the drums in certain places, taking out a guitar part, emphasizing the lead vocal throughout the song. Kolb says he'll drop off the demo at Scott's house after work and review the work the following morning to make sure they're still happy with the outcome. After that, it's complete.
Asked what he thinks of "Long Wide Open Road," Scott answers quickly and simply, "I love that song. I'm crazy about it."