Scott spoke with CMT Edge about the new album, writing with O’Brien and the duo’s newest Grammy nomination for best American roots song (“Keep Your Dirty Lights On”).
“I’m glad to have that one, the fourth nomination I’ve gotten,” he says. “Each one feels surprising and unbelievable. On some level, you strive for that, but I never think it’s going to get to the nomination world. I’m a surprised man.”
CMT Edge: So, what does the Grammy nomination mean?
Scott: I wouldn’t call it a miracle, but it’s something like that for an independent artist like me. For some reason, I feel like it’s lucky and miraculous that an independent artist can get that far through the gauntlet. I’m pleasantly surprised. I think it’s fantastic.
Tell the story behind writing “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.”
I have a place in the country between Nashville and Knoxville. If you were sitting on my porch looking east, you would see a mountain called Bear Knob. They strip-mined it in the ‘30s. Basically in the shadow of that, I had this song I was holding onto for Tim and me to write. I thought it would be perfect for us to get together on that because he’s from West Virginia and knows the mountaintop removal going on, and I’m from Kentucky. Those are the two leading states in mountaintop removal.
What’s Tim’s greatest asset as a co-writer?
He responds genuinely and honestly. He’s a great player and he brings that to the table. We’re both singers and harmony singers, and between us, we know hundreds if not thousands of songs from Woody Guthrie to Hank Williams to Bill Monroe to Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and John Prine and John Hartford. We come into any situation carrying that catalog of great stuff that happened before us.
Do you prefer co-writing or writing solo?
I get something out of each. Sometimes the co-write can bring up stuff you’d never come up with on your own. Tim and I emailed the songs we’d written on our own for the project to each other. We really did our bouncing back and forth with completed songs.
I just knew thematically we’d match up well on “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.” Tim is a very well-read guy. He knows the issues, especially as they had to do with his state of West Virginia. “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” being the only song we co-wrote speaks more to the fact that we didn’t have a lot of time.
What drew you to the John Prine song, “Paradise”?
It was exactly the same subject. When we first started, I really thought the whole record would be on the environmental subject. When we got closer to recording and looking at the songs, nature and environment are definitely in there, but only the two songs are as clearly stated — Prine’s “Paradise” and our “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.” That felt right for the record instead of 10 or 12 songs with the same idea. It’s a much better balanced record.
Describe working with John Prine.
Oh, he was great. The way that came about was I was doing a folk festival out in Fayetteville, Ark., and John was the headliner. He likes to bring folks out sometimes to sing on his last song, which is always “Paradise.” He asked me to come out and take a verse, and it went really well. It was an honor, of course. I’m a huge fan.
So, after the show, I said, “Hey, Tim and I are recording in February and March, and would you come down and do ‘Paradise’ with us?” He said, “Absolutely.” He was wonderful to work with. It was really important to have Prine on the record and that song. They’ll be singing that song in 300 years if anyone’s around to sing.
You also worked with Sarah Jarosz, who just got two Grammy nominations.
Yeah, I’m really proud of her for that. It really is a great record. Sometimes you look at the Grammy nominations and wonder how it came to be, but she’s up for the album of the year in that category [best folk album], and it is one of the best albums of the year.
Do you worry that she’s had too much success at such a young age?
No, she handles it extremely well. We’ve talked a good amount about that. Case in point: She went to school and just graduated. She went to college and specifically the [New England] Conservatory [of Music] when she could’ve easily been on a tour bus. That in itself says that this person knows that they’ve got a whole lifetime and a career ahead of them and not that nervous, “Oh, I have to do everything I can now.” I’m proud to say she knows the difference. She’s not making snap decisions. I see her as someone who will be making great records for decades.
She told us she wished she’d had a chance to eat your cooking.
Yeah, I love to cook. It seems like every time we’ve gotten together it’s been studio-oriented or writing a song, but I will gladly cook for Sarah. Probably all she got that day was some good coffee.
Do you find any connection between cooking and songwriting?
Yeah, a number of people I know are way into food and cooking and music. Zac Brown very much is. Tim’s a great cook. Mary Gauthier. I don’t know what the connection would be. Certainly they’re both creative outlets.
What I like to do as a cook is see what ingredients I have and do something with what I’ve got. That means more to me than following some recipe. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty bad at following a recipe. It’s sort of how I approach music. Give me the elements and let me put something together with what I’ve got.