"Modern Hymns" by Darrell Scott

Darrell Scott
Modern Hymns
Appleseed/Full Light
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Americana’s most impressive contemporary troubadour whose name isn’t Steve Earle, over the past decade Darrell Scott has produced a series of albums containing original music executed at such a high level that they have passed by all but the most discriminating listener. A true shame, considering the songs he’s dropped- including “My Father’s House,” “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” “River Take Me,” and 2007 Americana Music Association Song of the Year, “Hank Williams’ Ghost”- match or exceed that of those who have attained more widespread acclaim.

Perhaps best known for pairing with Tim O’Brien and as a sideman for Earle, Guy Clark, and Sam Bush, Darrell Scott has, with little fanfare, established himself as a ‘go-to’ Nashville-based songwriter and producer. However, his greatest work is contained on his own albums, and that continues with Modern Hymns, a new collection of songs written by others drawn from Scott’s formative years.

Those appreciating acoustic sounds from within a wide palate of color will find much of interest on Modern Hymns.

Most of the songs are multi-dimensional productions, replete with strings from the likes of Andrea Zonn, Stuart Duncan, and Orchestra Nashville. A few numbers- including Paul Simon’s “American Tune”- are kept to quintets, and provide down-to-earth respite from more elaborate settings. However, even when multiple vocalists and instruments come together on songs- as on Hoyt Axton’s “The Devil”- the arrangements are still seemingly uncomplicated and spacious sounding.

Roots fans will recognize many of the guests featured throughout the recording. Regular Scott collaborators Dirk Powell and Danny Thompson are prominently featured, and provide the album its instrumental core. Del and Ronnie McCoury contribute to Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going,” while David Grier, Jamie Hartford, and John Cowan also stop by for single appearances.

Scott, Mary Gauthier and Alison Krauss combine for a transcendent rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc;” magic, this one is with Krauss giving voice to the angels’ chorus as Scott’s flames arise to engulf Gauthier’s Maid of Orleans.

The beauty of Darrel Scott is that he can’t help but sound like himself, and he fully owns each of these songs. Even a number as familiar as “Jesus Was A Capricorn” becomes a Scott song by way of his hands and, most especially, voice.

It would have been easy for Scott to dramatically reinvent these songs, either by stripping them bare or throwing the entire tool shed at them. Instead, he has chosen to maintain the dignity of each song and their performers who came before him. And in doing so, Scott has honoured their artistic vision by taking the hard way- making the largely familiar songs his own while fundamentally retaining their essence.

Scott saves the album’s defining moments for the final ones, with a piercing reading of Guy Clark’s “That Old Time Feeling.” This intense song- filled with film-quality images- encapsulates everything that Scott has built his career upon: the influences of the past mixed with a modern, honest ear and precision instrumentation that just feels right.

When I recently submitted my annual Top 20 to the Postcard 2 discussion group, I missed Modern Hymns. My faux pas; Modern Hymns is certainly one of the most enjoyable and artistically adventurous albums released in 2008.

by Donlald Teplykse