There’s no lack of great guitarists in country music. Start with Merle Travis, veer over to Chet Atkins, make way for Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, and you’ll still have plenty of killer string-players left to discover. From grace and nuance to speed and authority, their pickin’ usually brings out the lyrical character of the song at hand while helping sell its emotional clout. Absorb what Atkins does with James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” and you’ll hear how a delicate statement of melody, flecked with a handful of witty fills, can be tied up in a swinging little package.
It probably won’t surprise longtime fans, but John Scofield has a way with twang, too. It’s an opinion that continuously unfolds on Country For Old Men, a romp through tunes associated with Hank, hollers, and honky tonks. Somewhere in the middle of “Mama Tried” the 64-year-old bandleader reminds us that prioritizing lyricism is a forever winning approach when it comes to broaching eloquence, and that pacing is an expert’s game.
In the first verse, Scofield starts off shadowing Merle Haggard’s melody, and from “doin’ life without parole” to “her pleading I denied,” he makes it seem like he’s fully happy to color inside the lines. Then, ka-boom, it’s lift-off time. As drummer Bill Stewart, bassist Steve Swallow and keyboardist Larry Goldings flip Hag’s steady clip-clop rhythm into something much sleeker, Sco roams the back 40, blowing a string of idiosyncratic phrases and adroitly linking ‘em together. Merle loved to swing, too – he was a Bob Wills freak, after all – and it genuinely seems there’s a legit nexus being forged between the two as the guitarist messes around with the singer’s melody.
This all works because Scofield is a song guy. From his earliest albums on, originals such as “Holidays” and “Fat Dancer” were the kind of improv vehicles that were easy to hum along with. As the decades flew by, that skill was sharpened. Quiet’s “Away With Words” and Works For Me’s “Not You Again” are earworms par excellence. By the time he started putting his spin on Ray Charles (check the boo hoo version of “Crying Time”) and the gospel canon (see the bouncy prayer of “I’ll Fly Away”), an approach had been fashioned. Country music has been in his head for a while, too. In 2007 he added extra a dollop of grace to Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” Personally, I wanted to hear more Nashville notions from him right then and there.
Scofield’s known as burner; in the last 15 years, he’s spent time reinvigorating the jam band formula and proving how cogent some psychedelic explorations can be. Country For Old Men is flecked with firecrackers; it has a “Red River Valley” that conjures Booker T & the MGs playing at CBGB, a straight-up frantic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and an “Wildwood Flower that might give A.P. Carter heart palpitations – hard-driving stuff. But as he did on Rich’s chart-topping ode to lust, here Sco shows us just how strong his ballad game is. Old Men finds him on a George Jones jag, racking up three gorgeous tearjerkers by the country icon. “A Girl I Used To Know,” approximates Possum’s jukebox melisma, deploying all those swoops and slurs in the “I won’t be-ah-egg you not to go” line. As “Mr. Fool” closes out, the guitarist alludes to Freddie King – launching single-note exclamations everywhere. And you can certainly feel the shot ‘n’ beer woe at the heart of “Bartender’s Blues,” the gin mill waltz that James Taylor laid on Jones’ plate in the late ‘70s. Mix this old-school beauty with the drama Scofield brings to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the cunning of his flow on Shania Twain’s “Still The One,” and a through-line emerges: lilt and whimsy are essential to his toolbox these days. No wonder he closes with a 30-second tintype refraction of “I’m An Old Cowhand” that manages nods to both Sonny Rollins and Roy Rogers.