Darrell Scott explains the story behind You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive
When it comes to Kentucky songs, there is no one that haunts us more than “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” While many remember the Patty Loveless version of the song, they may not realize that it was written by Laurel County native, Darrell Scott. Most recently, the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum revealed a special exhibit featuring Darrell Scott’s works and family.
While attending the exhibit reveal, Darrell Scott spoke about each of the items on display and why he chose each item. Among photos are lyric sheets for “Hummingbird” and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” as well as the guitar he gave to his father years ago.
“My family’s been from Kentucky for the past 200 years – Harlan County, coal mining, on both sides of my family, then coming into Knox County for tobacco farming. That’s where my roots come from,” Darrell recalled. “I was born in the hospital on the hill in London and it is no longer there.”
Darrell’s musical roots ran deep as well. “I came from a musical family. My dad (Wayne) and all my brothers were standing at the back door of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. At my age, 7 years old, believe me we played and did all kinds of music. So the Kentucky roots run very, very deep and it’s funny that we do this. As humans we try to get away from where we came from a little bit. You might try to move away. You might try to change your religion that you grew up in. That’s part of growing up and you’ll find your own way. So I can remember a time where I wanted to downplay my Kentucky thing, even though with my parents and my brothers it’s pretty hard to do that. I found a great bounty when that chase was over so probably in my thirties somewhere where I started really – I was always proud to be from Kentucky, but it’s like I turned a corner that ‘no wait a minute, Kentucky is very important to what I do.’ It’s my family. It’s the music. It’s the land. It’s the hard working. So I started embracing it and it started showing up in my music.”
As it comes to writing “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” Darrell Scott recalled going on trips with his father, Wayne Scott, to Harlan County. They were in search of learning more about Darrell’s great-grandfather, who was a musician, but truly little was known. They visited the Harlan County Public Library and searched through books and microfilms of historical records. They visited a couple of graveyards where they knew the family lived. Darrell noticed how the sun came up about ten in the morning, and down around three in the day. Soon he saw inscribed on a gravestone the words “you’ll never leave Harlan alive.”
“I didn’t go there to write the song. I went there to find out what happened to my great grandfather,” Darrell recalled. The images he recalled would be added into the song he would write a week after his visit to Harlan County.
When asked about Patty’s version, Darrell Scott recollect some memories from that recording session. “I played banjo on Patty Loveless’ version,” said Darrell. “In fact, she was having a hard time ‘getting it’ and her husband, Emory, was producing the album. He kept telling her that she wasn’t getting the song. He left and came back with a photo of Patty’s dad, who was a coal miner, and placed it on the music stand. Emory told her to sing the song to her father and that is exactly what she did and what you hear.”
Patty Loveless would later haunt us with her live version the night she was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame back in 2011.
Most recently, Darrell Scott released a live album, “Jaroso,” that is available now. For more information on Darrell Scott, be sure to visit www.darrellscott.com.
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website with over 20 years experience in music journalism, concert planning, photography, and promotion. Jessica is a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the 2019 Leadership Kentucky BRIGHT Class and a recipient of the Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award. Listen to her each week on WFKY on Friday mornings for the Nashville News Roundup.