As a session player, Ward has impacted dozens upon dozens of albums, but his latest, an ode to Wilson Pickett titled A Tribute to Wilson Pickett, is special because it’s got a ton of friends onboard, like David Hood, Spooner Oldham, Travis Wammack, and Steve Cropper, to name a few. To this, Ward says, “Just to be mentioned with them is a great honor.”
He explains, “I’ve been fortunate to know players like Cropper, Bob Wray, and Jimbo Hart; Tommy Coghall was something else—he’s one of my top-five favorites and influenced Jaco Pastorius.” Namechecks aside, the music of Muscle Shoals, the blues, and A Tribute to Wilson Pickett means a lot to Ward, as evidenced by his deep passion and still-burning desire to change lives—including his own—via music.
During a break in the action, Scott Ward dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to talk guitars, life, music, and beyond.
What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
As a teenager in the late ’70s, I grew up listening to FM radio- Q-104 in Gadsden, Alabama- they played a blend of everything from Cheap Trick, The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Molly Hatchet, The Atlanta Rhythm Section, and all those great bands—my uncle. Lewis Ward played electric guitar, which was the coolest thing ever. Listening to him play The Animal’s “House of The Rising Sun” sent chills up my spine. I saw “The Blues Brothers” for the first time in 1980.
During the scene where the band was playing behind the chicken wire at Bob’s Country Bunker, Steve Cropper rips a solo on “The Theme from Rawhide,” I was mesmerized- I had never heard that tone from a guitar before. At that moment, I knew I had to try and learn to play guitar. I could share that story with Steve in Nashville in the studio the first time I recorded with him 35 years later. My mother bought me my first guitar and amp for $25.00, which is long since gone. It was like a Teisco Del Ray. My first real guitar was a ’74 Les Paul Deluxe.
Where were you pulling from in terms of songwriting?
Songwriting has always been the hardest thing for me. When I started to write songs in the early ’90s, I expected it to be easy, but I was far from it and kind of discouraged. I would go to Nashville and try to get something going, and it just wasn’t happening. An event that changed my life was when my bass hero, David Hood, invited me to come to Muscle Shoals.
That opened a whole new world for me. The first legendary songwriter I met was Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery at Sonny’s Pawn Shop in Sheffield, Alabama- where Muscle Shoals Sound was located. Peanutt has had songs recorded by Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, and 73 with George Jones. Peanutt also played in George’s band. Peanutt’s character was featured prominently in Showtime’s “George and Tammy” with Walton Goggins playing him “to a T.”
Soon after, I met legendary songwriters Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts, Dan Penn, Travis Wammack, and others, and later the new generation of great songwriters- Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell, Mike Cooley, John Paul White, Brittany Howard, and others. The first few Drive by Truckers’ albums inspired me to start recording. My biggest mentors have been Mark Narmore, who wrote “Moon Over Georgia by Shenandoah, “That’s What I Love About Sunday” by Craig Morgan, and Billy Lawson, who wrote “You Turn Me On” by Tim McGraw and “I Left Something Turned on At Home” by Trace Adkins, which Bill Maher and Trace recently heralded on Bill’s show Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO.
Billy, Mark, and I are in the same age group and have many similar influences. They have taken the time to work with me, and I have learned much from them. When I’m trying to write a song now my goal is to write like them or a song like Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham would write—no easy task. Dan and Chips Moman’s “Dark End of The Street” is arguably the best song ever written. Spooner and Dan’s “Cry Like a Baby” is another great one with a great back story.
From a Rock perspective, Damon Johnson is a great writer and phenomenal guitarist- Brother Cane’s “Got No Shame” is a cool song and has influenced me as a writer. I love great story songs such as Drive by Truckers, George Jones’s “Talkin’ Cellphone Blues,” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac. My friend John Jorgenson (Desert Rose Band, The Hellecasters, Elton John) did a solo album in the early ’90s called “Emotional Savant,” which I still often listen to. It features a track called “Off My Back,” a well-written song lyrically and a blazing guitar solo.
Do you have a favorite riff and solo?
Out of the music I have heard after all these years, I think Dire Straits “Sultan of Swing” is my favorite- especially the solos. Mark Knopfler is an innovative and distinctive guitarist who is very tough to emulate. I can always tell when Mark is playing on a recording. When I first heard Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming,” I knew exactly what tracks he had played on “Slow Train” and “Precious Angel.” When I’m working on the guitar parts for a new song, I try, as most guitarists do, to come up with something fresh and not too close to something else.
Which songs best represent the player you are today, and why?
I’m a massive fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, The Muscle Shoals Sound, Reggie Young of The Memphis Boys, Stax Records, et al so I guess it would be “Call Me the Breeze” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Ramblin’ Man” by The Allman Brothers, “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray (Reggie Young’s guitar parts are immaculate), “Who’s Making Love” by Johnny Taylor (Steve Cropper) and any Dan Penn Record. Dan is the best rhythm guitar player in the world, and he could have been a rock star and one of the most prolific songwriters in the world.
How do you view the way you play today versus the past? What has changed most?
In the ’80s, I played aggressively and used a lot of distortion, and I thought the guitar should be the center of attention. Now, I lean more toward a cleaner sound—especially the sound of a Telecaster.
How do you view guitar solos in the modern era?
Sadly, I think guitar solos in pop and country music are becoming a thing of the past. I’ve also seen some Sirius Radio Stations trending to cut out guitar solos in classic songs altogether. One day, I was listening to The Eagle’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and was flabbergasted about why I didn’t hear Bernie Leadon’s classic B-bender solos.
Do they need to be deconstructed and changed from being overblown?
I think a lot depends on what fits the song, but self-indulgence is a good thing. I mean, that’s part of wanting to be a guitar player in a band and having that swagger. The “gunslinger’ mentality and having a friend like that means a lot.
Tell me about your gear: guitars, amps, pedals.
Over the past ten years, I have subscribed to the ideology that simplicity is better. I always trust Billy Lawson to dial up the right sound in the studio. Damon Johnson told me when we were recording in Muscle Shoals that as soon as he plugged in his Les Paul Gold Top, he knew that was the tone he needed. The tone is in the player’s hands.
Steve Cropper refers to pedals as “footwear.” Telecasters are my favorite. I also love Rickenbacker’s, the 330s, 360s, and the Jerry Jones Danelectro’s and Bass VIs, as well as the Fender Bass VIs, which sound great. My favorite guitar is my Peavey Cropper Classic Memphis. Those have been Cropper’s main guitars for close to 20 years. I’ve been fortunate to play his main Cropper Classic.
Thankfully, mine plays just like that one. As for bass guitars, I love Fender Precisions and Jazz basses with flat-wound strings. I’m also a fan of Lakland basses, even though I don’t own one yet. David Hood let me play his signature “Swamper” bass, which is the best I have ever played. He has been a great friend, and I have learned a lot from him.
What goes into those choices?
It’s whatever the style of music that I’m working on and what the song calls for. It’s so easy now to use a processor instead of various stringed instruments, such as a Coral Electric Sitar, an Electric 12, etc., or a Vintage Danelectro Bass VI.
What are your short and long-term goals?
My short-term goal is to release an album of tracks I’ve recorded over the past nine years with Jimmy Hall, Steve Cropper, Christine Ohlman of The Saturday Night Live Band, the late great “Funky” Donnie Fritts, and others. As for long-term goals, I want to continue working on the craft of songwriting and become the best writer I can be. I also aim to produce young bands and artists in Muscle Shoals and Nashville and have the chance to work with more of the artists and musicians I have always looked up to.
How will you achieve them?
The short-term goal should be relatively easy since all the tracks are pretty much finished. I can achieve the latter despite through all the great songwriters and musicians I’ve worked with over the past 15 years.
Scott Ward: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024