Field work: Folk luminaries benefit Piedmont lands

by Ryan Snyder


Buckaroo Banzai may get all the credit for the saying, but attribution of “Wherever you go, there you are” in praxis might belong to folk musicians of the early 1900s. Motel rooms, jail cells, on a stump by the meadow, it didn’t matter — an opportunity to record a tune or two was there. If it’s good enough for Dock Boggs or Clarence Ashley though, it’s good enough for Darrell Scott. The renowned country songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has fully embraced that notion over the years, as he’s not only taken to recording much of his finest work in the living room of his home, but to diligently collecting recordings of every live show he plays.

“For years, I played and realized that things happen live that never, ever happen anywhere else,” Scott said in an interview earlier this week. “I said, ‘If this matters, then it matters to have the recording.’” At the nexus of those practices is his work with frequent collaborator, mandolinist Tim O’Brien, who shared a Grammy-nomination on their 2000 living-room recording Real Time. The pair returned last week in their typical roles — O’Brien the comic and melodic foil to the demure and patient Scott — with We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This. It’s a live album to benefit the Arthur Morgan School, a Burnsville Montessori that both of their children attend. It’s not only Scott’s second live release, but his second recorded in the state of North Carolina, with 2004’s Live in NC split between performances at the Cat’s Cradle and the original Ziggy’s.

Like most roots and bluegrass musicians of Scott and O’Brien’s stature, their ties to the Tar Heel State are deep. O’Brien cited Lester Flatt in a recent phone interview when he said, “There’s no bad place to play in North Carolina,” and Flatt would know best. Flatt lived and held festivals at what is now known as Jomeokee Park in Pinnacle through much of the ’70s, preserving the rugged countryside as a muse for pickers like himself. Like Flatts’ sound, conservation also runs in the veins of Scott and O’Brien, and this Friday at the Carolina Theatre, they’ll join Newgrass Revival co-founder and current Doobie Brother bassist John Cowan for LandJam, a benefit of the Piedmont Land Conservancy to preserve countless other important parcels.

In its fourth year, LandJam finds precedent in other successful environmental benefits. In Louisiana, where wetlands erosion is a pervasive threat to the state’s native ecology, bluesman Tab Benoit put together Voice of the Wetlands to harness New Orleans’ rich musical heritage in organizing funds to counteract it. Likewise, the PLC’s mission is to protect the topographical integrity unique to the Piedmont region. LandJam supports the landowners who commit to keeping their parcels pristine, while also acquiring potentially endangered lands. Music, O’Brien says, is among the most effective avenues for this kind of advocacy.

“Musicians and artists in general rely on the natural world as a muse. We’re like a bacteria that expresses the state of the world,” he added. “We also don’t often have a lot of money to contribute to causes, but we can help just by showing up. You’re giving back to the world that gives to you and I think it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is; the Carolinas are very supportive.”

Like the lands from which they spring, roots, O’Brien suggests that folk and bluegrass are in fact renewable resources, given those with the ability commit to carrying the torch. Not every new epoch will look the same as the one that came before it, he understands, but the horizons beneath the surface can be easily traced.

It’s practically expected of players like O’Brien to credit NC legend Doc Watson heavily in their development, but O’Brien’s style owes a special debt.

“With Doc passing, in my world, he was the one that drew the map.

He put all of these different sounds into one bag and made it work,” he said. “People say, how can you take blues, mountain music, old ballads and old fiddle tunes and then turn around and play rockabilly or jazz? Well, Doc had no problem.”

The time will come when he, Scott and their peers are the elder statesmen of their field and his own legacyis considered, O’Brien simply wants the same thing Doc wanted.

“Doc was a guy who wanted to be known as a good man, and he wanted that first and foremost. I try to do that,” O’Brien said. “We owe an awful lot to the fields that he plowed. They are leaders and we followed. There’s new leaders coming along all the time and the kids coming up follow them.”

Just maybe, that kind of leading begins with safeguarding the places from where you came, keeping the horizons below the surface intact. Maybe, after a hundred years of field recordings like the one O’Brien, Scott and Cowan will create Friday night, the saying should be, “Wherever you came from, there you are.”

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott will perform at the Carolina Theatre on Friday night with support from the John Cowan Trio.