Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien
We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This
Full Light Records
4 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Even as American television viewers are treated to the glamourous side of Nashville through the ABC soap opera named after Music City, where brassy vixens young and old tear their way through the town’s menfolk on their way to the top of the necrotic popular country music industry, desperately grasping for the dwindling dollars and adoring, but thinning, crowds, fans of what can rightly be considered music can still find it on the banks of the Cumberland.
Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien are two of that city’s finest craftsmen, and first collaborated, on record, with 2000’s Real Time, melding two truly wonderful voices as different in timbre as they are alike in warmth and strength.
Four songs from that collection show up on this one, taken from two Asheville, North Carolina shows in 2005 and 2006 that prove the duo as fine a match live as in the studio, with the picking having a decidedly looser feel. The jaunty, life-is-good “Long Time Gone” (They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard / They got money, but they don’t have Cash / They got Junior, but they don’t have Hank) and “With a Memory Like Mine,” a welcome anti-war song that could be a sequel to Bob Dylan’s “John Brown,” were the best originals from Real Time; here they are just as good, as are the funky gospel of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and a knockout a cappella of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.”
Two more gospel numbers are among the 13 tracks: “Climbing Up a Mountain,” which opens the album with a Skaggs & Rice-style mandolin and guitar and Keith Whitley’s “You Don’t Have to Move that Mountain,” another groove as deep as “Keep Your Lamp.”
O’Brien and Scott pay welcome homage to songwriting heroes Townes van Zandt (“White Freightliner Blues”), Gordon Lightfoot (“Early Morning Rain”), and Lefty Frizzell (“Mom and Dad’s Waltz”) with covers, and to Scott’s songwriting father, Wayne Scott, with “The Hummingbird,” a song about a guitar Wayne played and Darrell played with.
The 58-minute album closes with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as the second half of a medley that starts with “When There’s No One Around,” an insistent introspection co-written by O’Brien and Scott that was recorded by Garth Brooks. One can doubt whether that mawkish huckster did it justice—I can’t be bothered to find out—but not that it has paid some bills for two proper musicians.
My favorite discovery here is “Mick Ryan’s Lament,” a song from O’Brien’s 2001 Irish folk album Two Journeys that I’m ashamed to have missed. Sung in his emphatic tenor, it’s about one of the countless Irishmen who fled the British-caused Great Famine for Americay, only to end up slaving away in a factory few hard years before putting on a blue coat to go kill their white-skinned cousins in the South and, soon after, their red-skinned ones in the West in fights that can hardly be called fair. Mick Ryan survives Vicksburg before meeting his end at Little Big Horn with the pompous fop Custer, dying to the strains of “Garryowen,” an Irish quickstep that some U.S. Army regiments revived in the latest Iraq war. “Mick Ryan’s Lament” is what a folk song should be, a cinematic story with sharp detail, sung with passion to an audience who needs to hear its message. Nothing this powerful is likely to show up on ABC.