Darrell Scott’s name has appeared virtually everywhere you look on the country/roots/Americana scene over the past couple of decades, and yet as a solo artist he’s still something of an éminence grise (in both its senses), and yes, an outsider in all but name. As he himself describes it: “I look like an insider because of everything I’ve done but I always felt like an outsider.” Result: he’s spent 23 years in Nashville but has now moved out to the Cumberland Plateau, between Knoxville and Nashville, to take that outsider role more seriously. Much of the attraction of this new locale is that Darrell is able to work outside the concerns and constraints of Nashville and the industry, so he can take his time and work to his own rules and be completely self-sufficient. This has given him the opportunity to revisit some of the records he’s made but not released, including this bunch of 14 songs he recorded some 15 years ago, which comprises nine originals and five covers. But Couchville Sessions is definitely not a mere “dusting off the reject pile” exercise, anything but that! For it turns out to be unquestionably one of his finest collections (and it’s his tenth solo studio album). “These songs have really stood the test of time. They still move me”, Darrell says. And they sure move us too, as you’ll hear.
Virtually the entire record was cut live in Darrell’s own living room out on the Couchville Pike road, back in 2001 and 2002, with his crack team of veteran master musicians (Danny Thompson, Kenny Malone and Dan Dugmore). Then, in the spring of 2015, Darrell revisited the recordings, and decided the songs were too good to remain silent so he brought in Bill Payne to overdub keyboard parts and cajoled some extra guests into adding touches of their own magic. There’s cameos and embellishments by Peter Rowan, John Cowan, Shad Cobb, Dirk Powell, Mike McGoldrick and Andrea Zonn, and even a spoken monologue by Guy Clark on the coda to opening track Down To The River, a typically challenging critique of the music industry. But it’s Darrell’s special musical personality and unique all-round artistry that stamps itself through the set, characterised by his trademark emotion-laden vocals, profound and sensitive writing and superlative instrumental picking. Darrell gives of his best, and gets the best in return from his fellow-musicians – and in what can only be described as maximum mutual respect.
It’s unbelievable that these recordings can have taken 15 years to surface, such is their total assured quality. The album wears its extended timespan (a whole hour) exceedingly well, for although it’s almost twice as long as the majority of latter-day Americana albums, there’s no hint of filler and not a remotely weak cut in earshot. Not even in the covers – for these too are outstanding. There’s songs by Hank Williams (a revealing and perceptive slow-burn atmospheric reading of Ramblin’ Man), Peter Rowan (an unexpectedly driven, seriously rockin’ jam on Midnight Moonlight), Johnny Cash (a grit-fuelled, full-on-electric Big River), Townes Van Zandt (a light-textured take on the whimsical Loretta) and James Taylor (a nigh-perfect communication of a nigh-perfect song, Another Grey Morning, which – like the album that surrounds it – balances serious themes with hope-filled lyricism).
Darrell’s own songs leave us in no doubt that he’s up there with the five above-covered masters of the noble art of songwriting (not that you can have failed to notice the large number of fellow-artists queuing up to cover Darrell’s songs over the years!). He explores the darker issues of life sensitively and honestly, without shirking his responsibility as a songwriter to tell it like it is, and he tackles these issues upfront without preaching; we feel all the emotional impact, and yet positively, in the universal spirit of acceptance. It’s as invidious as it is impossible to cherrypick from these nine originals, but I can’t resist singling out It’s Time To Go Away, It’s Another Day To Live And Die, Come Into This Room and It’s About Time – the latter pair inhabiting a distinct James Taylor vibe that I’d not before clocked in Darrell’s music.
Bravo, Darrell – for Couchville Sessions is a tremendous achievement that fair makes me wonder how many more unreleased recordings of this calibre Darrell’s gone and squirrelled away …
Listen to Darell Scott’s Folk Radio UK Session performing unplugged songs from Couchville Sessions here or listen below: