TIM O’BRIEN & DARRELL SCOTT SCORE
A GRAMMY NOMINATION FOR THEIR COAL MINING DRAMA
“KEEP YOUR DIRTY LIGHTS ON”
I’ve seen both Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott perform (just, you might say!).
Darrell Scott was part of the all-star band put together for the Robert Plant and Allison Krauss Raising Sand tour. I caught them in all their glory at New Orleans’ Jazz Fest in 2008 with my son Geoff. Darrell was a little in the background – not that surprising given the stars on the stage at the time – but he did sing one song during the miraculous set I recall. Tim O’Brien was a key part of a fascinating Q and A at this year’s Americana Conference in Nashville and provided some great insights into his career.
I purchased their album We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This (which I’m listening to as I write) a couple of days after the Q and A – the last copy in Ernest Tubb’s Record Store (much to the chagrin of my friend Sandra).
O’Brien and Scott have earned a Grammy nomination for their song “Keep Your Dirty Lights On”, for Best American Roots Song. It is Scott’s fourth and the duo’s second Grammy nomination.
“Keep Your Dirty Lights” comes from the pair’s collaboration Memories and Moments, the critically lauded album released in September on their own Full Skies labels. This album has appeared on numerous “Best Of 2013” lists.
In less than four minutes, the song paints a vivid portrait of life in coal country while tackling larger issues of “clean coal” and green living. The song, about a family of miners whose name has been in “King Coal’s ledger book” for generations, has the spare, plainspoken qualities of an old-time Roscoe Holcomb ballad. However, O’Brien and Scott have subtly contemporized their tale. In lines like “Well Daddy worked in darkness/Me in broad daylight/I can blow a whole seem like Daddy never dreamed,” they reveal how a miner’s work has changed over time.
The duo also addresses the misleading concept of “clean coal” (“coal’s still black/It ain’t never turning green”) and, in the song’s closing lines, they suggest the challenges of living coal-free (“So plug your electric car in/Charge it good and strong/Do your shopping online/We’ll get you every time/Just keep your dirty lights on”).
America’s coal mining region is one familiar to both men, as O’Brien hails from West Virginia and Scott from Kentucky. The two, however, don’t consider the song as an attack on the coal industry. In talking to Brittney McKenna for TheBluegrassSituation.com, Scott explained that their aim was more to raise the question: “Do you realize that the electricity we’re using is coming from those mountains?” It’s part of their goal as writers and artists to, in O’Brien’s words, “witness what’s going on, describe it like journalists and put it in a nice little melodic frame… under the guise of entertainment, it makes people think about what’s happening.
These two award-winners have been creating music that entertains, as well as makes people think, for a good long while now. O’Brien rose to roots music prominence by co-founding one of the ’80s most successful bluegrass bands, Hot Rize, before moving on to make several well-regarded solo albums for Sugar Hill Records. Scott was already a sought-after songwriter and musician with Randy Travis, Suzy Bogguss, Guy Clark and Martina McBride already on his resume when he was paired up with O’Brien, through their respective Music Row publishers, to write songs together in the late ’90s. The two sparked from the start; one of their first co-writes was the Garth Brooks hit “When There’s No One Around.”
Their musical camaraderie led them to start performing together. After a stint as members of Steve Earle’s Bluegrass Dukes, O’Brien and Scott recorded their first duo album Real Time and this 2000 release quickly earned a place in the Americana pantheon. In explaining their chemistry, Scott has stated, “we push each other’s Appalachian roots buttons. It happens naturally, it’s not a strategy. We know Southern gospel, Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family, and not just a little — it’s in our DNA.”
Because they both have flourishing solo careers along with being in-demand sidemen (O’Brien recently toured with Mark Knopfler while Scott was part of Plant’s other outfit Band of Joy), the two haven’t had a lot of opportunities to record together. Besides the aforementioned freewheeling live album, We’re Usually Better Than This (released in 2012 but recorded in 2005 and 2006), Memories and Moments stands as just their second studio album together. Recorded by Scott and O’Brien in just three days (with no overdubs), the CD serves as a master class in American roots music. The two men’s playing displays their down-home virtuosity and their singing reveals their musical brotherhood. While “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” has been justifiably honored by the Grammys, the album also contains a handful of well-crafted tunes from each artist along with a few smartly chosen covers. Their decision to do a Hank Williams tune (“Alone and Forsaken”) was a natural since the two acknowledge Williams as being musical common ground for them, while their inclusion of John Prine’s coal country ode “Paradise” pairs expertly with “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.”
The duo’s first Grammy nomination was in the Country Instrumental category for “The Second Mouse” from the Real Time project. O’Brien had two previous nominations in the Bluegrass category before winning a Grammy in 2005 for Best Folk Recording with “”Fiddler’s Green.”