Darrell Scott’s reputation has been built on his tremendous songwriting. Both the Dixie Chicks’s “Long Time Gone” and Patty Loveless’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” arguably the two finest country songs of the aughts, came from his pen. It’s no great shock, then, that the greatest strength of his eighth solo album, the double-disc A Crooked Road, is in the insight and emotional resonance of Scott’s writing. Opening disc one, the set’s title track conveys a hard-earned sense of maturity, recognizing each of the unexpected bumps and turns along the course of a fulfilling relationship. Concluding with the observation, “And only when I’m looking back/Do I see the straight and narrow/I see the straight and narrow/When I walk a crooked road,” the song immediately sets the tone for both sides of the album.
It’s to Scott’s credit that he’s written a full 20 songs, each of which tackles heady emotions of compromise, regret, and tempered optimism to varying degrees, without ever running out of novel perspectives or having a lapse in quality. Standout cuts like “The Day Before Thanksgiving” and the devastating “Candles in the Rain (Childless Mothers)” showcase Scott’s masterful approach to theme. Images of travel and family recur throughout both halves of the record, giving A Crooked Road an impressive structural heft that justifies the album’s length.
It isn’t just Scott’s songwriting that impresses though: His ragged baritone is a soulful, powerful instrument. It takes a singer on the level of Loveless or Natalie Maines to turn in covers that equal or surpass the quality of Scott’s originals. Here, he brings a genuinely touching pathos to “A Father’s Song,” while he pays sincere homage to many of his idols on “For Suzanne.” He even belts out a mean blues number with “Snow Queen and Drama Llama.”
The album would be even better than it is if Scott had included a few more uptempo, harder-edged cuts like “Queen.” His musicianship is first-rate (Scott has long been an in-demand session player), and he makes clever, seamless use of overdubs in the production to fake performances on instruments like the harp and cello. But most of the songs, which include a handful of instrumental pieces, are midtempo numbers built on Scott’s excellent acoustic guitar work and light-handed drumming.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of the songs’ content being more varied than their sound. Scott’s instincts as an editor are strong: There honestly isn’t a song on either disc that should be cut. Had he brought in some outside musicians to flesh out the album’s sound, though, Scott may have been able to create a more compelling sonic palette. Still, his desire to perform all of the instruments and produce the album entirely on his own is admirable, and it’s just another facet of A Crooked Road that puts most of Scott’s contemporaries to shame.