Graduation | Music Features | Memphis Flyer
Girls rock campers made good: Those Darlins' charming debut.by Chris Herrington
It's fitting that that the Murfreesboro trio Those Darlins will play Memphis on the tour supporting their much-raved-about debut album the same week that the first Delta Girls Rock Camp will be held at the Hutchison School.
Kelley Darlin, the blond, bass-playing member of the roots-pop trio, founded the Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp (SGRRC) while a student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and then expanded the camp to Memphis as the organization's executive director, first at the Gibson Guitar Factory and then at Hutchison.
Kelley stepped down as SGRRC's director this year when her band began to tour frequently, and, under new leadership, SGRRC decided to pull back its Memphis presence, but has assisted locals — including musicians Angela Horton and Kate Crowder and artist Sheri Bancroft — in forming a Memphis-based counterpart, the Delta Girls Rock Camp, which starts July 27th.
The original SGRRC in Murfreesboro was also the genesis of Those Darlins, according to guitarist Jessi Darlin. After Kelley, as a college freshman, founded the camp for girls ages 10-17, Jessi, then a junior-highschooler from nearby Nolan, Tennessee, was an attendee. Jessi continued to attend the camp for several years, even after moving to Kentucky, and later met the band's third member, ukelele-playing Nikki Darlin, who visited the camp with a friend who was volunteering. (The bandmates have adopted the group surname, Ramones-style.)
"I was talking about moving to Murfreesboro because I wanted to start a band and play with people," Jessi says. "At that time, we'd moved to Kentucky and lived out in the middle of nowhere, so I didn't know anyone who wanted to play music."
With Nikki also relocating to Murfreesboro from Nashville, the pair became roommates, introducing each other to faves from the Carter Family (Jessi) and Woody Guthrie (Nikki) and playing music together. Soon, Kelley joined up and the band was born.
Those Darlins, the band's recently released debut, is rooted in old-timey acoustic country sounds, with all three band members playing stringed instruments and swapping or sharing vocals. The band deploys this style with gusto, charm, and an utter lack of the self-righteousness that plagues so many (mostly male) alt-country types. But the band's musical range extends beyond early country. Strummy acoustic guitars pour out over rough-and-tumble, slapdash percussion (credited instrument: "belly slaps"), while twangy lead vocals lead into girlishly modern group choruses.
The opening "Red Light Love" is early rock-and-roll that evokes Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. "DUI or Die" has a girl-group swing. The band takes the Carter Family's "Who's That Knockin' at My Window" and converts it into classic-rock, with heavy drums and a menacing opening guitar riff.
Thoughout, the band plays with Southern imagery. "Whole Damn Thing" opens with the confession, "I got drunk and I ate the chicken." "Glass to You" sets this scene: "Sitting here on the front porch of my little house in the country, sittin' here with nothing to do."
Though Nikki's snarling "Wild One" comes off as the band's statement of purpose, Jessi's "Snaggletooth Mama" is the band's most intensive deployment of the Southern iconography that some mock and others romanticize.
"I live so far out down the country roads/There ain't nothing for hours/By the time I get back from the grocery store/The milk's already gone sour," Jessi sings. "Well the mechanic say my pickup ain't doing so hot, but it sounds pretty good to me/It may be old and it may be rundown, but it can still climb the hills of Tennessee." Surveying the scene, Jessi concludes, "Between the midnight kisses and front-porch sittin', I love my backwoods life."
While the song sounds like a loving but sarcastic bit of band self-mythology, an exaggerated take on their house-sharing life in "backwoods" Murfreesboro, it turns out that the song — one of the band's first — was instead inspired by Jessi's out-of-the-norm upbringing.
"I grew up in the middle of nowhere in this old house in the country," Jessi says. "My parents were both artists, and we were really poor at the time. The woman who owned the house let us live there for free if we'd mow her mother's yard. We fixed it up and lived there, but for a while we didn't have electricity or water. We lived half a mile from Lake Cumberland, and we'd go swimming there. That was our bath. It was a crazy way to grow up. Being as young as I am, most people don't have that experience. At that time we pretty much had nothing but each other, but we had a really good time. We would just hang out and do creative things. I learned to play guitar. We had animals and gardened. We would just be a family, and I really cherish that time in my life."
After self-consciously avoiding the trappings of "redneck" and "hillbilly" stereotypes in high school, Jessi says that traveling began to change her view.
"I started to really appreciate some of the people who had been supportive of me that other people would consider backwoods hillbillies. So I wanted to write something that [had an] 'I'm proud to be from the middle of nowhere' [attitude], about being satisfied with yourself and happy with what you're doing and where you're coming from. I didn't think the country was going to hear it. I was just happy to have another song that was ours to play."