Review By Steven Stone
Darrell Scott's reputation as a stellar songwriter makes any new release a time for celebration. His latest CD highlights his performing prowess rather than his songwriting chops. All twelve cuts on Modern Hymns are covers of other writers' material.
This isn't the first time Scott has displayed his interpretive abilities. On his Live from NC he performed Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Still Miss Someone," but here he tackles a much wider range of songs and songwriters. Some of his song choices are naturals, such as Gordon Lightfoot's "All The Lovely Ladies," Guy Clark's "That Old Time Feeling," and Kris Kistofferson's "Jesus Was a Capricorn." Other choices are further afield musically such as Pat Metheny's "James," Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc," and Paul Simon's "American Tune." Regardless of the source, by the second bar every song sounds like a Darrell Scott tune. Scott combines old-timey textures with modern tin-pan alley sensibilities in a unique way. He celebrates and luxuriates in the harmonies and changes of each song. On Adam Mitchell's "Out Among the Stars" Scott frames the song with a full acapella choir. But Scott performs his most striking musical transformation with Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc." Mary Gauther sings the female lead with a world-weary timbre while Scott delivers the answering "fire" part of their duet with a glowing intensity that matches Cohen's rendition from Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat album.
At the beginning of his career in Nashville Scott often worked as an A-list sideman, and as you might expect the players list on Modern Hymns reads like a winners roll from a International Bluegrass Musicians Association or American Roots Music Association convention. Acoustic bass legend Danny Thompson is joined by Stuart Duncan and Casey Driessen on fiddle, David Grier on guitar, Dirk Powell on accordion and banjo, and Alison Krause, John Cowan, Mary Gauthier, Suzi Ragsdale, and Kathy Chiavola on accompanying vocals. Scott plays guitar, mandola, dobro, piano, banjo, and lead vocals.
I've always maintained that to understand how a songwriter's mind works you must listen to how they perform covers of other writers' material. On Modern Hymns Darrell Scott delivers twelve striking performances that illuminate his uniquely personal style. Modern Hymns ranks among my top five favorite releases of 2008.