If you're only going to have one original on an album filled with classics, it better measure up. And Boz Scaggs felt that "Hell to Pay," his sole songwriting credit on his forthcoming A Fool to Care (out March 31) certainly did.
"Writers talk about that song that every once in a while is so easy, like it just falls out of the sky as if it's already written and you're just transcribing it. This 'Hell To Pay' song was just that," Scaggs tells Billboard. The original idea for the track, he says, hails back to the mid/late '80s, and he found a guitar/drum machine demo of it while he was looking around for ideas. "I'd had the germ of that song in my head for some time and I just started to pull it out."
He initially thought of Lucinda Williams as a duet partner on the track, but he wound up using her on his rendition of The Band's "Whispering Pines." Then his recording engineer suggested Bonnie Raitt, which A Fool to Care producer Steve Jordan seconded. "I was scared to call Bonnie. I'm sort of in awe of Bonnie," Scaggs confesses. "So Jordan called Bonnie and we sent Bonnie the demo and the lyrics and she fell for it and she came up to the house and we spent a day together. She's just a really strong musician, a remarkable woman. That's special to me."
Raitt, who also plays slide guitar on the track, says the feeling is mutual, noting, "I am so glad to finally get to play and sing with Boz, who's always been a favorite. The song was so cool lyrically and musically and it seems like a perfect fit."
Listen to "Hell to Pay" below, which Billboard is exclusively premiering.
Though Raitt's part was recorded at Scaggs' home studio, The Barn, in northern California's Napa Valley, the bulk of the album was recorded over four days at Blackbird Studio in Nashville. A sequel of sorts to Scaggs' 2013 album Memphis, it reunited him with Jordan as well as a crack band that included Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, Willie Weeks on bass, Jim Cox on keyboards and Jordan on drums, with several Nashville aces joining in for covers of songs originally done by Al Green, Huey "Piano" Smith, the Spinners, Bobby Charles, the Impressions, and British singer-songwriter Richard Hawley.
"I look at this album and it seems like it's all over the map," says Scaggs, who credits Nashville in general and Blackbird in particular for that diversity. "I've never recorded in Nashville. We have a lot of musical friends there. The palette of players who could come in and do (guest) spots for us was enormous. We were able to bring in a few amazing players that couldn't be found anywhere else. And the studio itself has such good gear and sounds so good, which is quite a departure from Memphis, which is a sound and a very limited amount of production stuff. So we felt like there was a whole world of things to explore and amazing echo chambers and amazing drum sounds. I think that really did contribute to what felt good and what we felt was working. Everything was fun, and we just enjoyed that."