Bookmark and Share

Sara Watkins, Darrell Scott — at the Four Corners Folk Festival

The 14th annual Four Corners Folk Festival is just around the corner, taking place Sept. 4-6, over Labor Day Weekend on Reservoir Hill right here in Pagosa Springs. The musical lineup features 14 outstanding national and international performers including Tim O’Brien, the subdudes, The Bills, The Greencards, The Infamous Stringdusters, Anne and Pete Sibley, Eddie From Ohio, Russ Barenberg Trio, Marc Atkinson Trio, The Quebe Sisters, the Wiyos, Shannon Whitworth and this week’s featured artists: Sara Watkins and Darrell Scott.

 Born on a tobacco farm in London, Ky., in 1959, and raised in E. Gary, Indiana, Darrell Scott was part of a musical family. His father Wayne, a steelworker by trade but a songwriter in his heart, moved his clan to Southern California when Darrell was 11. Soon Darrell and brothers Denny, Dale, Don, and David were part of their dad’s band, getting on-the-job training in country music as they played its hits on the stages of roadhouses and taverns as far north as Alaska.

Darrell eventually left the band and California, paying some more musical dues in Toronto and in Boston and earning a degree in poetry from nearby Tufts University, where he also studied literature. With his lyric skills sharpened and his abilities on guitars, banjo and other instruments already road-tested, Darrell followed his muse to country music’s Ground Zero, Nashville. His key to entering Music Row’s inner circles was, at first, his string-slinging skills – starting in 1992, he appeared on albums by alt-country mavericks Guy Clark (for whom he later produced two CDs) and Steve Earle, Randy Travis, Patty Loveless, and dozens more.

As his “day job” as a picker flourished, Darrell channeled his other creative energies into his own songwriting and recordings. By the time he had released his debut CD, “Aloha from Nashville” (1997), its follow-up “Family Tree” (1999), and “Real Time” (2000), a duo album with “newgrass” trailblazer Tim O’Brien, Darrell’s original songs were much in demand by singers looking for more than “big hat” bragging or slick country-pop. Suzy Bogguss was the first of many to record a Scott song, taking his “No Way Out” into the country singles charts in 1996. Darrell’s compositions became highlights of albums by Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Kathy Mattea, Maura O’Connell and even his mentor, Guy Clark. The Dixie Chicks’ recording of “Long Time Gone” from Real Time was not only a hit for the Chicks but garnered a 2003 Grammy nomination for “Best Country Song;” “The Second Mouse,” a Scott/O’Brien tune from Real Time, was a Grammy finalist as “Best Country Instrumental Performance” in 2001. That same year, Darrell was named Songwriter of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association International, an honor repeated by ASCAP in 2002.

Darrell’s solo CDs, session work, touring gigs with Steve Earle’s Bluegrass Dukes (of which he remains a member), Guy Clark, and Newgrass Revival founder Sam Bush, and his own live shows have steadily drawn reviews even payola can’t buy. USA Today praised his “brilliantly clever songs.” Entertainment Tonight raved about his “powerful songwriting, passionate vocals and masterful picking.” Rolling Stone listed his 2003 CD, “Theatre of the Unheard,” in their list of Critics’ Top Albums and compared him to Clark and Springsteen “at their best.” Performing Songwriter went all the way, dubbing him “the best of the best.”

Somehow, Darrell has continually found the time and energy to expand his musical activities ever further. In 2003, he launched his own label, Full Light Records, and his first move as owner was to produce a traditional, mountain country album for his father, “This Weary Way,” that finally showcased Wayne’s original songs. For the past two years, Darrell has been the “artist in residence” with Orchestra Nashville (members appear on Modern Hymn’s “Joan of Arc”), creating what he calls “diverse musical happenings — the odder the better,” mixing the string section with such guests as Sam Bush, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and other musicians from many genres.

Darrell plays more than 50 shows a year, including prestigious US and UK festivals, and conducts songwriting workshops around the country. He’ll be performing and teaching a songwriting workshop on Saturday, Sept. 4, at the Four Corners Folk Festival.

 You could say that Sara Watkins’ solo debut has been a lifetime in the making. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter and fiddle player spent nearly two decades — all of her teenage and young adult life — as one-third of Nickel Creek, the Grammy Award–winning acoustic trio that used contemporary bluegrass as a starting point for its no-genre-barred sound. Along the way, she’s hinted at her desire to do a project of her own and even organized some exploratory sessions in Los Angeles about six years ago. Now, with Nickel Creek on indefinite hiatus, she has released her self-titled solo disc, recorded in Los Angeles and Nashville and produced by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.

 It features an impressively wide range of backing players and old friends, including itinerant alt-country duo Gillian Welch and Dave Rawling, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas; fellow travelers from the bluegrass world like Tim O’Brien, Chris Eldridge, Ronnie McCoury and Rayna Gellert; and her Nickel Creek bandmates.

 Watkins’ debut has an air of easygoing virtuosity. She displays her skill as a multi-instrumentalist, playing the guitar and ukulele as well as the fiddle, and proves herself to be just as versatile, and breathtakingly mature, as a vocalist. Watkins segues gracefully from the lighthearted country and western swing of Jimmie Rodger’s “Any Old Time,” to the world-weariness and spiritual yearning of Norman Blake’s “Lord Won’t You Help Me,” to the romantic wistfulness of Jon Brion’s “Same Mistake.”

 Though she still considers herself a neophyte as a songwriter, her own work is as evocative as any of the material she’s chosen to cover. Her wordless fiddle tunes are exuberant, foot-stomping pieces, while the songs for which she wrote both music and lyrics have a heart-meltingly lovelorn quality. There’s honesty and empathy on tracks like the sweetly soulful “My Friend,” the brooding “Bygones,” and the rueful album closer, “Where Will You Be.” Watkins is newly, and very happily, married, but she knows how to channel the plaintive emotions of classic country and timeless pop in her own work.

 In 1989, Watkins, barely out of her childhood, started playing in a nascent version of Nickel Creek at the seemingly unlikely venue of That Pizza Place in Carlsbad, Calif., along with her guitarist brother, Sean, and mandolinist friend Chris Thile (and chaperoned, of course, by her bluegrass-playing parents). The prodigious young trio built a reputation in bluegrass, folk, and country circles, then catapulted to mainstream prominence in 2000 after releasing an album produced by Alison Krauss. When not on the road or in the studio with Nickel Creek, Watkins guest-starred as fiddler and/or harmony vocalist on albums by Bela Fleck, the Chieftains, Ben Lee, Dan Wilson, Richard Thompson, and Ray La Montagne, among others. In addition, Watkins and brother Sean established an informal get-up-and-jam residency called the Watkins Family Hour at L.A. club Largo.

 The compellingly straightforward arrangements she and Jones devised on Sara Watkins allow Watkins’ personality to come through, illustrating both her sensitivity and her strength. These sessions had been a long time coming, but it’s clear that Watkins has only just begun. Sara will perform on Saturday, Sept. 5 at 4 p.m., and will teach a fiddle workshop at 2 p.m.

 Tickets are available locally at Moonlight Books downtown and at ReSport in the Pagosa Lakes City Market shopping center or can be purchased online at www.folkwest.com and by phone, (877) 472-4672. Additional festival information can be found on the festival Web site: www.folkwest.com.