Darrell Scott,
Modern Hymns
(Appleseed/Full Light, 2008)

Though Darrell Scott doesn't make the point, the dozen songs he covers on Modern Hymns underscore how much the 1960s folk revival altered songwriting. Unlike other forms of popular music, folk in its traditional sense is about everything that people could ever put into a song -- in other words, not just about love won or lost, pop music's perennials. When revival performers started writing their own material, using old ballad forms as the template, and turning them to modern themes, songs got a whole lot more nuanced and complicated.

Of the living songwriters whose art Scott, himself a highly successful Nashville songwriter, celebrates, probably only Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan and Guy Clark would think of themselves as folk singers. But none would write as they do if not for the revival's influence, and that includes Kris Kristofferson (represented here with "Jesus Was a Capricorn"), Leonard Cohen ("Joan of Arc"), Joni Mitchell ("Urge for Going") and Paul Simon ("American Tune").

Ordinarily, when a Nashville personality chooses to record a tribute album, he or she chooses country standards -- usually only to demonstrate (not intentionally, of course) that the originals didn't need anybody to try to improve on them. Scott, however, turns to the more lyrically rich creations of the contemporary masters, all but one (the unknown Adam Mitchell, composer of the exceptionally well-told "Out Among the Stars") famous or at least recognizable to persons who pay attention to good music.

He also has the wit to pick songs that haven't worn themselves out with excessive familiarity. Like Scott, I keenly admire Lightfoot's gift, and my CD shelves house a respectable number of his recordings. Even so, "All the Lovely Ladies" is -- or at least seems -- new to me. Even with its unpromising title it's a superior song, resounding with intelligence, insight and compassion. Any ambitious songwriter would like to have written it. Fittingly, presumably because it sounds much like a secular hymn, it opens Modern Hymns.

Scott and his band, which includes a number of Nashville's best rooted session players, don't try to copy the originals. Mitchell's "Urge for Going" -- written in the days when she was a folk singer, if your memory goes back that far -- has been memorably covered by Mitchell herself, Tom Rush and the late Dave Van Ronk (the last of these my particular favorite), but 'til now nobody's thought of it as a bluegrass tune. I could barely believe what I was hearing the first time it danced through the speakers. It does grow on you.

I am pleased Scott remembers John Hartford's obscure "Nobody Eats at Linebaugh's Anymore" (about the closing of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, long home of the Grand Ole Opry, in the 1970s), which I've always loved while certain that mine was a lonely passion. Scott actually improves on Dylan's "I Don't Believe You," which heretofore I'd recalled, dimly and unfondly, from Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), otherwise known as the first unlistenable Dylan record.

Among other engaging moments on a CD with no un-engaging ones, Mickey Newbury's "Frisco Depot" and Hoyt Axton's "The Devil" are particular stand-outs. Hearing them, I thought how easy it was to take the consistent professionalism of Newbury and Axton for granted, and how much it's missed now that they're no longer around to practice it.

review by
Jerome Clark

6 September 2008

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