It was the perfect plan.
My wife and I were heading back to Murfreesboro, where we would meet up with Those Darlins, drink a bottle of whiskey and smoke a carton of Pall Malls together. We were going to catch up on all the wild events of the 18 months that had passed since we had all been neighbors, co-workers and full-time drinking buddies. It was going to be our quiet moment to reunite before the storm we all knew was coming. Boy, did that plan go to hell in handbag.
It wasn't really a surprise, what with the national media clamoring for their attention, worshipping their "authenticity" and generally acting like slack-jawed yokels since the Darlins' debut single "Wild One" hit the streets. Nearly every review reads like Bugs Bunny interpreting a Faulkner character in a Memphis brothel. "Uh, I reckon I'd sure like to a-hang out with those darlins." It's as if our coastal media elites could never imagine the mythological Crazy Southerners as three well-spoken, feminist punks. They're shocked that the raw hillbilly R&B stomp of songs like "Red Light Love" and "Hung Up on Me" could emanate from the same area code as the shiny gentility of Taylor Swift.
Before all this, though—before The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones and The New York Times' David Carr took notice, before the 1,260,000 Google hits for "Those Darlins," before the magazine photo-shoots and public adoration—they were just three girls in petticoats, cooking and buckdancing in my wife's kitchen every Sunday night. Jessi (guitar) and Nikki (ukulele) lived down the street in a creepy old shanty of a house across from the cemetery. They had both drifted into town the preceding summer, Jessi arriving from the backwoods of Kentucky and Nikki from the mountains of Virginia, looking for kicks and a chance to play some music. Kelley had arrived in Murfreesboro from Myrtle Beach, Va., a few years prior, going to school, playing in bands and running the Southern Girls Rock 'n' Roll Camp, a day camp for aspiring lady-rockers. (Full disclosure and further proof that Those Darlins can make men do silly things with the bat of an eye: I spent three years working for SGRRC after Kelley asked me to "help out for the afternoon.")
Their meeting and subsequent announcement that they'd be forming a band wasn't anything worth noting—Murfreesboro is the kind of town where bands form at every kegger and break up before the hangover wears off. What did stand out, though, was that they were ignoring the long-codified method of operations for Murfreesboro bands. See, Murfreesboro has a longstanding tradition of rushing out bands before they've fully incubated, passing off slacker insolence as showmanship and, well, generally avoiding the kind of effort that makes bands successful. The musicians of Murfreesboro, especially graduates of Middle Tennessee State University's Recording Industry Management program, try so hard to rail against the turd-polishing tradition of Music Row that they forget that out in the real world—beyond the cozy confines of collegiate indiedom—normal people listen to music for entertainment, not underachiever one-upmanship. (More disclosure: I was an especially grievous proponent of this aesthetic.)
Those Darlins were different—they practiced for months before leaving the front porch, they coordinated their outfits and played nothing but classic country covers—more of a rarity than one would think in modern Middle Tennessee. The Darlins turned down shows, where other bands clamored for empty slots at empty bars. The Darlins kept their original songs close to their vests while building a reputation as performers—their peers made the false assumption that anybody gives a rat-ass about over-sharing, emotional cripples they've never heard before. The Darlins remembered that audiences want to be part of the party, not silent observers of some hack's public psychotherapy session. And as if that weren't contrarian enough, Those Darlins cut their album in New York City.
New York City?! Yep, just like in the old salsa commercials. But why, you ask, would any country band leave Nashville— the country music capital of the world and home to countless top-notch studios—to record in the Babylonian bedlam of the Big Apple? First and foremost, despite geographic origins and that twangy tinge to their speech, Those Darlins are punk rockers and they are not about to let any established hierarchy interfere with the way they make their music. When people told them, "This is how we do it in Nashville," they replied—in unison, with snaggle-toothed smiles and a coy glimmer in their eyes: "Shove it, suckers." And like so many of their first-wave forebears, The Cramps included, they packed up the gear, jumped in the van and headed to the big city, where they could collaborate with like-minded individuals like Vampire Weekend producer Jeff Curtin, rather than conform to rhinestone-encrusted group-think. They started their own label—Oh Wow Dang—and adopted an egalitarian approach to handling band business, sidestepping the indentured servitude, greed and egomania of the major label system. How very un-Nashville of them.
The record they returned with is a fiery assemblage that's more Pink Flamingos than Coal Miner's Daughter—true tales of drunken debauchery that owe as much to the Brill Building and CBGBs as they do to Ralph Peer and the Carter Family. And if you are ready to dismiss the verisimilitude of their verses, just know that the fellow on the receiving end of "Wild One" ("If you can't handle crazy, just go ahead and leave") went into the insurance racket, that a 12-pack of beer on the handlebars caused the bike crash at the heart of "DUI or Die" and that the titular matriarch in "Mama' Heart" is a wonderfully sweet woman—one time she fell asleep on The 5 Spot's couch and it was adorable. Those Darlins talk the talk and walk the rock 'n' roll walk—this is not another bunch of alt-country, city-slickin' poseurs singing about cows and chickens out of some false sense of authenticity. These are honestly the wildest, craziest dames you're likely to find this side of the Tennessee Prison for Women.
Which brings us to the here and now—Plan C, if you will. Those Darlins are on the phone, driving between Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh on the first leg of what's looking like an endless tour. Plan B was to meet at Bonnaroo, which worked for about 15 minutes before professional duties sent us in different directions—them to be photographed for Vogue's Style.com and me off to scrounge for booze. Their set that night was revelatory. Standing at the back of the crowd, watching random people from all walks of life stop, pull out their guidebooks, exclaim, "Holy shit! Who is this?!?" and then start dancing was pure joy—a perfect example of the universal appeal of honest music. (Highlight: Seeing freakishly tall "fifth Darlin" John "JT" Turner standing next to two little people—all three rockin' the fuck out, in unison no less.) But back to Plan C....
Kelley Darlin is telling me about Heavy Trash, the new project from the Blues Explosion's Jon Spencer. It seems Mr. Spencer is quite the fan and brought the girls in to sing background vocals on his new album. He's also joining them for their release party in New York City, which is, uh, wicked fucking awesome and only rivaled by The Black Lips joining them this weekend at the Mercy Lounge in terms of hipster-baiting double bills. And this is all after they've toured with Elvis Perkins, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Langhorne Slim—not to mention that they've garnered BluBlocker sunglasses' first sponsorship deal since the Oak Ridge Boys. Talk about hip!
It occurs to me that, somehow, those three girls who were buckdancing in my wife's kitchen just a few short years ago have ingratiated themselves to the garage rock cognoscenti, wooed the national press and won fans across the country. They've made an outstanding album, defied all expectations and done so without caving to the deeply ingrained hegemony of their hometown. It's only a matter of weeks before the rest of the world comes calling. But it shouldn't have been a surprise—Those Darlins have always been the coolest girls I know. Well, aside from my wife, of course. It was her kitchen after all.