Before I get in over my head, I should probably acknowledge that bluegrass/country music is not my usual jam. If you read my stuff here before, that’s likely obvious to you. There’s a family story my Mom tells about my Indiana Gramps playing slide Hawaiian guitar on the street out in front of their mainstreet shotgun house across from the local tavern; he’d play with some other local musicians and my church-going Mama would sing harmony on traditional country songs with her sisters, while the drunks would come out and dance in the streets. Still, my it took a long time for me to grow an appreciation for the genre, kicked into high gear when I was listening to and writing about Uncle Tupelo no doubt. These days, I’m drawn more toward the Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris side of things than much of the mainstream country world, but in the mid-00’s I came across Darrell Scott and it didn’t take long before I realized he was a pretty amazing songwriter.
Turns out in 2010, Scott joined up with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, playing guitar, mandolin, pedal and lap steel, and other assorted instruments. As a songwriter, Scott’s song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” has been covered by lots of artists, and he’s had songs covered on recordings by The Chicks, Guy Clark, and even Beyonce, along with many others. He’s released 14 albums give or take, and here he’s joined by Matt Flinner on mando and banjo, Shad Cobb on fiddle, and Bryn Davies on upright bass (along with Scott, she also tours with Jack White on cello). This is Scott’s first album with original material since 2016.
In reliable fashion, Scott has shaped a number of great story songs that tap deeply into his upbringing in rural Kentucky. “Kentucky Morning,” which features the words that give the album it’s title, tells the story of the one who stayed behind when other family member travelled north for factory jobs in Detroit, Akron, and Chicago. As he sits on his porch, rocking, and looks out on the open land he’s content. Similarly, “Charlie and Ruby” tells the story of a childless couple who lived an all too normal life in a rural community, wanting more but making do by sharing life together, and with others. Songs like “Red Bird,” “One Hand Upon the Wheel” and “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” all tap into the lived experience of folk who are just trying to get by, doing the best they can. And together this quartet finds a lovely blend, acoustic guitars, vocal harmonies, smart melodic runs, plenty of instrumental prowess on display.
One great surprise is the fabulous cover of Stephen Stills’ “Southern Cross,” countrified a bit with some hot fiddle, but those fine, emotionally rich vocal harmonies that find the song’s hidden connection of country gospel. What a delight, I may actually like this version more than the original. Which leads into the one true, old school gospel song, written and recorded back in 2009 by Scott’s father, Wayne, “This Weary Way.” If it’s a bit syrupy sounding, that’s the way it’s supposed to sound. And then to take those string band credentials out for a fun bluegrass run, they cover the traditional “Banjo in the Holler,” which is well enough, but they also take on a bit of country corn right out of the Hee Haw TV show, with goofy asides in “Fried Taters,” but if you can focus on the actual playing, they are picking up a storm on these tracks, these cats are world class bluegrass players.
Before the album ends, Scott gets personal again, playing piano and singing a pop ballad that’s lush with existential self-awareness: “The World Is Too Much with Me,” while the string players move into traditional orchestration, with Cobb playing a violin solo. Then the album closes with another great instrumental, “Raji’s Romp,” all the players offering up some smart, fun melodic runs, fast yet emotionally rich and musical playing, much as they have offered throughout this fine collection of folky Americana and country. If you buy just one bluegrass album this year, I’d highly recommend this one.
“Kentucky Morning” / “Southern Cross” / “Cumberland Plateau”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Buddy Miller / Stephen Stills / Steve Earle
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