Darrell Scott and the Ghost of Hank Williams

Music Features Darrell Scott
Darrell Scott and the Ghost of Hank Williams

A couple of hours before their set at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this month, Darrell Scott’s Electrifying Band grabbed dinner at the Burger Bar on the Virginia side of this state-straddling city. Legend has it that this tiny, wedge-shaped eatery (nine stools and a diagonal counter) at the corner of Piedmont and State Streets was the last place anyone heard Hank Williams speak.

It was Wednesday, December 31, 1952, and Hank’s driver Charles Carr supposedly stopped at the bar for some food and asked the ailing singer slumped in the back seat if he wanted anything. His bloodstream already swimming with morphine and beer, Williams whimpered, “No.” He was dead by the time the sun rose again.

For Scott, who was raised in Indiana by a Hank-loving daddy from Kentucky, this tale has special resonance. He released the album Darrell Scott Sings the Blues of Hank Williams in 2020 and has explored the tug-of-war experienced by Hank and so many Americans: the pull of the rural-or-small-town roots and the attraction of big cities and new horizons.

Scott addresses this rural/urban divide in our culture on all three albums he produced this year: Old Cane Back Rocker by the Darrell Scott String Band, released in August; Morning Shift by the Steep Canyon Rangers, released this month; and Critterland by Willi Carlisle, finished but due in January. These are three of the best acoustic projects of the year, but Scott is also taking his electric band on tour this fall including stops at Bristol and Hank’s 100th birthday celebration in Montgomery, Alabama.

In Bristol, the four musicians walked down the block and crossed State Street into Tennessee to take the festival’s Country Mural Stage, so named because giant, painted likenesses of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers stare down from the brick building next door. Bristol earned its nickname as “The Birthplace of Country Music,” because the Carters and Rodgers auditioned and made their first recordings down State Street at a hat-and-glove factory during a 12-day period in the summer of 1927. And that’s why the Burger Bar story has such resonance; it happened in the same downtown neighborhood.

The set’s second song was Williams’s “The Blues Come Around,” done as a blues-rock stomp with Scott’s sunburst Les Paul guitar adding cardiogram spikes to the beat and Reese Wynans’ B-3 organ flooding the empty spaces. “I think Hank is a blues singer,” Scott told the crowd, “though no one calls him that. I also think he’s a singer-songwriter, though no one calls him that either.”

Wynans is best known as a member of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, and he brought that same edge to Hank’s songs as a member Scott’s electric band. It wasn’t that Scott and Wynans were trying to take Hank out of his country context; it was more that they were calling attention to the blues element that was there all along. They were reminding us that poor Whites in the South have long known the blues in every low-paying job, every troubled marriage and every brief explosion of joy.

“Why can’t you take a Hank song and blues it up?” Scott asked me in 2020. “It’s not something I’m putting in there; it’s already there. I knew certain Hank songs could handle that very easily. So I made a list of 25 Hank songs that might work—and not the real obvious songs. The brain would say, ‘More people will recognize ‘Hey, Good Looking,’ but the heart would say, ‘You know the good stuff, why not use them?’ ‘Men with Broken Hearts’ from his Luke the Drifter records is not as well known, but people need to hear that now. Certainly we know about that in our modern world.”

The Bristol set included two more songs—“My Sweet Love Ain’t Around” and “Fool About You”—from Hank’s recordings plus two Scott originals that mention Hank in the lyrics. “Hank Williams’ Ghost” is one of those early-morning, wondering-what-it’s-all-about songs; it begins with the notion that “hillbilly sins have an odor all their own” and ends with the confession that “we hurt the ones we love the most and we blame it on Hank Williams’ ghost.”

The other Hank-related original, “One Hand on the Wheel,” is from Scott’s new string-band album. It’s a story song about a down-on-his-luck guy trying scrape together the bus fare to Shelbyville, Kentucky, where his brother might have a line on a job. Before he goes, however, he’s going to stop at the local tavern, where the juke box is free till noon. “ I always play Hank Williams,” the song’s narrator says, “just like my daddy did, where it’s laid out on the table, and the meaning never hid.”

“There’s no trickery in Hank,” Scott says now. “There’s no Dylan in Hank, no Dylan Thomas poetry. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ was as poetic as he got. Everything else was pretty direct. He didn’t have a bone in his writing body that wanted to hide anything. So I loved it when that line came up in ‘One Hand on the Wheel.’ There’s so much praise for mysterious writing, but I wanted to say, ‘Hey wait a minute; let’s not forget how simple things can be and still be so impactful.’”

Scott and bassist Bryn Davies are members of both the electric band and the acoustic band. On Old Cane Back Rocker, these two are joined by fiddler Shad Cobb and banjoist/mandolinist Matt Flinner. This quartet is able to approach the rural/urban dichotomy from the backwoods perspective, where the instruments are wooden and hollow, and the weather is more important than the clock. Between bluegrass festivals in Arkansas and Colorado Springs in 2019, this quartet lay down the basic tracks at the E-Town studio in Boulder.

“I knew the band’s instrumentation,” Scott explains, “so I picked songs that would sit with that. I didn’t have a conscious theme I was pursuing, but now I can see this rural-culture theme. It’s easy to see how rural subject matter can fit with rural instrumentation, and I had already written those songs.”

For poor rural Americans, the dilemma is often this: Do we stay where we are, close to the family and nature we love, or do we move to the city and its better opportunities? The album’s opener, “Kentucky Morning,” originally recorded by Bobby Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, tells the story of one who stayed home, who is happy with “a good piece of land and an old cane back rocker” and the morning call of the whippoorwill, even if the car and the porch are always on the verge of collapse.

“That’s one side of it,” Scott says. “For my parents, Kentucky was the ideal; the farm life is the life for me, like in Green Acres. Sunday was church day; the rest of the time was hard work and family. There’s also nature as a spiritual source. I remember my dad talking about a tree, a place where he would go as a child, where he could climb up and no one could find him, where he could shout out poetry and no one would hear. He wouldn’t call it this, but I think of it is a sacred tree.”

The other side of it is “One Hand on the Wheel,” the reluctant drive down the highway in search of a job. “Cumberland Plateau,” where Scott shares the vocals and writing credit with the New Grass Revival’s John Cowan, finds the narrator doubting his decision to leave the Plateau and the girl he loved. “Sometimes you just got to go,” he sings, “put your face to the wind and sail into the great unknown.” But you can’t escape the tug of home—even if you never return.

“My dad’s generation couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and go to the manufacturing North,” Scott points out. “Ohio had those tire factories; Pittsburgh had those steel factories, Detroit the car factories. Cincinnati had G&E. I could hear in their stories that they were torn about leaving, about the girlfriends, boyfriends and nature that got left behind. But they went just the same. That’s the tear; that’s the pull. Yes, we went to the city, and we have more money than we ever would have had, but we still miss the country ways.

“I have the same division. You’ve seen where we live out in the hills. At the same time, we still have our place in Nashville, and I know how to jaywalk and find good restaurants and museums. I’m still a touring musician who’s on the road much of the year.”

Though he grew up in urban Indiana, Scott was surrounded by Kentucky transplants and often went back South to visit relatives. His father Wayne was a serious, amateur musician who translated his love for Williams and Johnny Cash into original songs that live on through his son. Darrell sings Wayne’s gospel hymn, “The Weary Way,” on the new album and sang Wayne’s drinking number, “It’s the Whiskey That Eases the Pain,” in Bristol. Darrell even produced his dad’s only album in 2005.

“That rural culture is still there even if your family is in an urban area,” the son says. “The eggs are still cooked the same; the songs are still the same, and so is the way people talk. I was getting the architecture of the rural ways even though I didn’t spend much time in rural settings. You run away from it until you can’t. Then the door opens, and you have to walk through. There was a time when I thought this music was the last thing I’d do. It’s not all I do now, but I did walk through the door and look around.”

After college in Boston and struggling-musician years in Toronto and Los Angeles, he landed in Nashville where he found a niche as a songwriter for the Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley and Patty Loveless and as a picker for Robert Plant, Steve Earle and Guy Clark. After 25 years in Nashville, however, he moved his primary residence to backwoods Eastern Tennessee. Along the way, he acquired a reputation as a producer of rural music.

That’s why the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Graham Sharp contacted Scott during the pandemic. The bluegrass band is best known for its collaborations with comedian/banjoist Steve Martin, but their own recordings and concerts have earned a devoted following. But in early 2022, the Rangers were in crisis. Lead singer and co-founder Woody Platt was leaving the band to spend more time at home (the old rural dilemma in action), and the rest of the band were seeking a way forward. They’d known Scott for years on the string-band circuit, and he was their choice to produce the first post-Platt album.

Watch the Steep Canyon Rangers with Steve Martin at the Paste Studio in 2018.

“Initially when Woody left,” Sharp says, “we thought we might just move our drummer Mike Ashworth to either bass or guitar, both of which he’s great at, and continue as a five piece. Our bassist Barrett Smith would take over the lead vocals that Woody vacated, and we’d go from there. We played a show like this in York, Pennsylvania, and it went really well. However, it seemed like we had an opportunity to bring in a new element the band had never known.”

“What I wanted to find out was, ‘Yes, you’ve lost Woody, a very charismatic member, so who are you now?’” Scott recalls. “They were still great players and they still had Graham’s songs. Once I figured that out, I asked, “How come no one else writes in the band? Is it no one is interested? Or is no one else felt welcome?’

“The other element I wanted to bring out was that they’d used a drummer for 10 years, but it sounded like they were hiding him, maybe because Bill Monroe didn’t have a drummer. I didn’t want the drummer to be a second-class citizen. They had a new guitarist Aaron Burdett, and I said, ‘Don’t hide this guy for two or three albums; bring him forward. Here he is, right now.’ He was writing good songs and was a good singer.”

Scott, engineer Dave Sinko and the band gathered at a mountaintop inn in Bat Cave, North Carolina, and worked to reshape the band’s personality. What emerged was not a traditional bluegrass album nor a newgrass project nor a country-folk, singer-songwriter recording but a blend of all three. There was more emphasis on the storytelling in the songs, and that meant bringing the lyrics forward and using the band’s instrumental skills to frame the narratives rather than to show off chops. It’s a different Steep Canyon Rangers but in many ways a more interesting version.

A good example is the lead-off track, “Hominy Valley,” which ties the ancient history of this area in North Carolina’s Buncombe Country to the present. Just as the British betrayed the Cherokee in the 18th century, so are the Charlotte bankers betraying the present-day residents. The ghosts of the Cherokee haunt not just the lyrics but also the moody music. Something similar happens in songs such as “Harvest Queeen” and “Birds of Ohio.”

“I’m aware of the straightforward bluegrass approach—and I admire that—but the songs they were sending me didn’t call for that,” Scott says. “They can do that, of course, but these songs didn’t scream, ‘This is bluegrass.’ And I was really glad about that. They started out as bluegrass musicians, but their creative selves were venturing beyond that. The songs came in as guitar/vocal demos, and I thought it was part of my job to expand on what has already happened and create what hasn’t happened.”

“As an artist with one foot in bluegrass and one foot everywhere else in the known universe,” Sharp adds, “Darrell seemed like the guy who would most ‘get’ what we are trying to do. What we expected and what he actually brought to the table were a bit different. He ended up helping us see the reworked band for all its strengths and led us in that direction. One thing he especially brought was a confidence that we could all grow beyond what our roles in the band had always been.”

Willi Carlisle’s Critterland won’t be released till January, but it’s already finished, and it sounds like a big step forward for one of the most promising figures on the old-time music scene. The big, burly singer-songwriter from Arkansas made his name with smart, irreverent talking-blues numbers such as “Vanlife” and “Peculiar, Missouri.” But in other songs such as “Your Heart’s a Big Tent” and “I Wont Be Afraid,” he hinted at an ambition and an ability to write about the more troubling sides of life. Scott wanted to bring out more of that side when he agreed to produce Carlisle’s new project.

“For me it’s all about songs,” Scott declares, “so I said, ‘Send me some songs.’ That’s always the starting point for me. So his manager sent me Willi’s last album, and I could hear the writer in there, but something was missing. So I said, “Send me the songs he’s writing now,’ and he sent me 20-25 songs. Those sounded like a real writer. He had really stepped up his game, and I knew the album should be very simple folk music, like Utah Phillips or Bill Morrissey. I wanted to get out of the way and let the writing do the heavy lifting.”

“I knew Critterland, my third full-length, was going to be intimate and dark,” Carlisle adds. “I knew we were in a hurry, that we were balancing more than 100 tour dates with an earnest and indefatigable desire to put creative juices to work. Plus, I was working through songs so intimate it was hard to play them. The clay was wet, and we needed a hot kiln to fire the songs in. We found that in Darrell.”

Carlisle moved into Scott’s East Tennessee home for the duration, and the two men were alone in the house’s high-ceilinged living room/studio with engineer Erick Jaskowiak. Carlisle’s voice and various instruments (guitar, banjo, accordion, harmonica) were out front, and Scott filled in around the edges.

The album opens with the title track, a self-assessment that admits to feeling more comfortable with critters than most people. It ends with an epic, seven-minute story about the unholy alliance between a pot dealer and the local sheriff in the Ozarks that does not end well. In between are Whitmanesque looks at rural America and “The Arrangements,” a powerful song about a difficult father.

“My training in music is about half from traditional musicians in the Ozarks, melodies learned by ear from other people’s fiddles or singing,” Carlisle notes. “The other half of my music comes my own idols: folks like Darrell or Guy Clark, the Seegers or Townes or Joni or Utah. Learning informally from that canon means their influence is just kind of there without me always knowing it. Darrell brings a lot of lived experience and expertise, and while we share similar favorites, he’s less interested in ‘folkie’ or regional soundscapes. He plays with a bigger color palate.”

That palate was used to good effect at Bristol when the electric band played Scott’s most famous song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Wynans’ organ gave the number a slow-burn intensity as Scott sang about a holler so deep that “the sun comes up about ten in the morning, and the sun goes down about three in the day.” Like so many rural Americans, the characters in the song feel trapped not only by the steep slopes but also by the coal and tobacco companies that narrow their options.

It’s a powerful song no matter where you’re from. But for many in the crowd gathered before the stage in Bristol, less than two hours away across the high mountains from Harlan County, Kentucky, the song was personal. Many had family and friends who’d been tied to these mountains in ambiguous ways, and when Scott finished the song by singing, “You spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave. You’ll never leave Harlan alive,” there was a moment of stunned silence. Then the locals slowly rose from their camp chairs for a standing ovation.

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