The country albums that seem to show up most on rocks critics’ top 10 lists for 2011 – Eric Church’s Chief, Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record, Hell On Heels from Lambert’s side project trio Pistol Annies – are hard-edged, sometimes even bordering on hard rock: Music with at least a tint of outlaw, just like Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song a year ago. Those are all deserving records, too – they definitely beat the bland alt-country quasi-tradition that critics used to gravitate toward. But of course hard-edgedness has always only been part of country’s story, and it turns out that two of the best albums to emerge from Nashville lately are the work of real smoothies. In fact, David Nail’s The Sound Of A Million Dreams and Darrell Scott’s Long Ride Home are both being marketed, in label publicity releases at least, as throwbacks to the side-burned mellow gold of early ‘70s countrypolitan. That’s not all they have in common, either, but they come at it from opposite poles.
For one thing, though both these releases echo ‘70s singer-songwriter soft-rock as much as ‘70s Music Row, only Scott is a full-fledged singer-songwriter, per sé. MCA Nashville calls Nail one, but he gets only one full and two partial composition credits on his 11-song second album, even fewer than on his 2009 debut. That record, I’m About To Come Alive, was named for its first single, which was – yikes — a Train cover. Nail says he absorbed Elton John as much as Glen Campbell growing up, and he starts out his new CD’s liner-note thank yous by admitting “some say I’m not country enough” and opens the title track talking about Bob Seger. Hardly unheard of in Nashville – “I Won’t Let You Down,” the best ballad on Toby Keith’s latest album, opens with a Seger shout-out too – but you won’t find a redneck bone in Nail’s body. A boy-band-handsome 32-year-old high school band director’s son with clean-cut facial stubble and a penchant for urbane sport jackets, he grew up in the same southeast Missouri town as Sheryl Crow, and really likes baseball – he coached it after an initial early ‘00s record contract fell through; he thanks the Cardinals and assorted players (not to mention Dick Vitale) in his notes; and two consecutive songs on Million Dreams mention ball fields. The first, “Half Mile Hill,” is a swirling memory of parental divorce that Nail has said reminds him “of when I was going through a bout of depression”; the second, “That’s How I’ll Remember You,” talks about mustard on an ex’s lips in the Brooklyn bleachers. They must have been watching the Cyclones. (Best minor-league country since “Cheap Seats” by Alabama?)
Depression and Brooklyn are not places commercial country usually visits. But then, Nail seems to be part of a refreshing new breed – like the even younger rookie Randy Montana, whose self-titled Mercury debut can hold its own against any album released in 2011, he’s an admitted Wallflowers fan (double yikes) who has toured as an opener for Taylor Swift. So a young suburban female fanbase is clearly not out of the question. And his vulnerability will help: After a humid soul-singer-backed Southern boogie choogle about pitching summer woo at Grandpa’s farm and a meticulously chorused Lee Ann Womack duet about songwriting as a job (co-written by Billy Montana, Randy’s dad), Nail piles on no less than four straight lyrics about being dumped. Sometimes, he takes the blame; in the top 10 country single “Let It Rain,” a pair-up with Sarah Buxton, he forgets to wear his ring one night and gets downright self-flagellating about it: “Let it hurt, even more than I deserve.” The two tracks that precede that one are even better – “Desiree,” first done by Keith Urban’s pre-stardom country-rock trio the Ranch in 1997, is a gorgeously upswooping power ballad where the girl leaves him for a rich guy; “She Rides Away” is an almost otherworldly heat-rippling-on-blacktop mood piece where she confesses her heartbreak sins in a Texas-border chapel while the holy water splashes. As the album goes on, Nail’s laid-back manliness takes flights toward ‘70s Springsteen and soul as producers Frank Liddell (Womack’s husband), Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf (both best known for working with Mark Knopfler) give him a spacious sound propelled by plenty of piano and Hammond B-3.
There’s lots of keyboard on Darrell Scott’s Long Ride Home, too – played by Hargus “Pig” Robbins, no less, who has been tinkling ivories on country records ever since George Jones’s late ‘50s “White Lightning.” Several other all-stars also showed up for the sessions, said to have taken place in Scott’s own Nashville living room. Scott’s a veteran sideman himself; he’s strummed just about every string instrument you could name on both mainstream country and Americana albums since the early ‘90s, and he’s a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. He’s also written actual country smashes for people like the Dixie Chicks and Travis Tritt. But unlike Nail, who already has two #7 hits under his belt despite being born two decades later (1979 to Scott’s 1959), Scott doesn’t get on country radio himself. In the past, he’s been at least a borderline folkie: 2008’s all-covers Modern Hymns had selections from Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. He even went to Tufts University for poetry and literature; Nail was a Pi Kappa Alpha at Arkansas State. And Scott is no pretty boy: he’s more a scraggly grey-beard. But he doesn’t sound gruff or grizzled, and his self-production on Long Ride Home is not your usual demo-level alt-country cardboard. It’s heart-warming, lush, r&b-inflected – not terribly far, really, from David Nail’s sound on his own new album.
This is Scott’s seventh studio set overall; originally scheduled to come out on roots-oriented indie Thirty Tigers in October, its release recently got pushed back to January. Its 16 tracks total over an hour, and could have used a little pruning, especially in the middle. But it starts out superb, and stays there long enough to get over. Opener “It Must Be Sunday” is an ace sort of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”/“Lonely Weekends” update; Scott’s looking forward to Monday so he’ll have something to occupy his mind other than the woman missing from room 302, though he confesses he might call in sick tomorrow regardless. His phrasing in both that number and the album’s finale, “Still Got A Ways To Go” – a desolation-row drone that evolves into a boogie-woogie while namedropping Andrew Jackson – have some intermittent covert Dylan in them; Scott’s not averse to high Jimmie Rodgers yodel parts, either. The rolling tour song “Every Road Leads Back To You” has another sneaky “Sunday Morning Coming Down” reference. And “No Use Living For Today,” where Scott’s loose-limbed band takes an old-time hillbilly blues rhythm to the bank as he shouts out their individual home states, is at least partially about lousy weekends as well – but don’t worry, when his baby comes in on the 12:09 he’s planning to lie to her about it.
“Too Close To Comfort” has a different kind of lying – after a drunken tryst in a hotel bar in downtown Atlanta. “Hopkinsville,” almost jazzily hopped-up and with Rodney Crowell helping out, concerns finding welding work and drinking behind drawn curtains on your day off. “Out In the Parking Lot,” sung with Guy Clark and previously recorded by Brad Paisley, is an eagle-eyed observation of couples making out and cowboys brawling outside the roadhouse after the gig’s finished: “Some have given up, some are giving in.” “Dance In the Darkness” is another glum one – narrator tries to bum a cigarette on the street, the guy gives him the whole pack – with a haunted, repetitive build that you could almost imagine some Velvet Underground-inspired glam-folk songster like Peter Laughner or Elliott Murphy pulling off in the mid ‘70s. And so on. There’s a whole lot here, but it’s nearly all sung with a comforting ease that insures the music isn’t loaded down by its literary ambition. And it’s an ease that David Nail, though very different on the surface, shares. Wonder if he and Scott have heard each other.
MTV Hive, December 2011