Long Live Those Darlins, or Requiem for a Favorite Band
Photo by Angelina Castillo
I fell in like with Those Darlins while driving through Cambridge in 2009, when a then-friend asked me to play DJ and my fingers found the scratched case of their self-titled full-length in the well of her Nissan's passenger door. I judged a book by its cover and liked the design of it, a snapshot of a woman's un-manicured hand clutching a half-gone drink, their name stamped above the rim of the glass in dusty rose saloon-worthy signage. I asked her about the band and mentioned I liked their name; she said that they were "kind of rockabilly" and mentioned that they were popular in Nashville, and that a ukulele was involved (but not in a lame way or anything). She put the CD in and skipped the first track, "Red Light Love," in favor of "Wild One," their calling card and mission statement. The twangy, toothy sneer of a tune somehow managed to channel Wanda Jackson and Sleater-Kinney without biting too much off either act. We bounced around the rest of the album, I bought it on iTunes when I got home, and I proceeded to tell as many of my friends about Those Darlins as possible in the following months. Those Darlins became "my" band, the band I'd proudly champion on mix tapes for the men I would date who'd hand over Joy Division-Passion Pit-Menomena-etc. selections in return. My best friend and I have traded favorite bands like playing cards over the course of our two decades of friendship — Less Than Jake, the Avett Brothers, Devendra Banhart — and I was thrilled to bring this to our musical table.
I fell in love with Those Darlins in the backyard of a barbecue joint in Austin a few months after that first listen of "Wild One" on Mass Ave. It was South by Southwest 2010, they were booked on a Deer Tick and Friends showcase, and the quartet — who then went by Jessi Darlin, Nikki Darlin, Kelley Darlin, and Linwood — were ferocious. They were a rock 'n' roll tornado, and the debris left in their wake was speckled with sequined hot pants, swear words and the saucy sheen of a cherry-red Gibson. They covered Wanda; they covered the Carter Family; their originals were just as catchy and classic-sounding as the bluegrass and country standards they'd drag through the barbed wires of their distortion to fit them into their repertoire. They were a rock 'n' roll band that somehow found their place between the Ryman's folklore and the decidedly un-country rock scene of Nashville that had up until them relied really heavily on men with guitars unfazed by the interests of Music Row. I loved them for that. I still love them for that.
Since that humid Saturday afternoon somewhere south of the Colorado River, Those Darlins went on to release two more records (the aforementioned self-titled debut was followed up by 2011's Screws Get Loose and 2013's Blur The Line, and all on their own label, Oh Wow Dang), play on through a couple of line-up changes (Kelley left the band in 2012), and criss-cross thousands of miles of American highway in their van. I joined them for a few hundred of those — for the stretch between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., to be precise — the day after Valentine's Day 2014, when I followed them and Diarrhea Planet on tour for a story on the "new Nashville." "Wild One" was no longer a fixture in their show or an identifying, anthemic standard, even — they eased up on some of the more country-fried selections off their debut when Screws Get Loose brought them in the direction of straightforward rock — but "Red Light Love" was, with "Be Your Bro" and "Night Jogger" taking the place as newer favorites. Every Those Darlins song was a favorite Those Darlins song. They're the rare act that inspires an all-or-nothin' allegiance, and as one who had the great fortune of finding them as a fan and following them as a journalist, my heart sank the second I saw that "We're here to deliver some unfortunate news...." note pop up on Facebook in December. Like scores of bands before them, Those Darlins had opted to call it quits (for now, at least) citing creative differences.
"It's hard to explain, because it’s the accumulation of a lot of stuff," says Jessi over the phone. The Darlins were literally packing up the van when I dialed her up, as they were just about to head to Louisville for the first stop of their goodbye tour, which brings them to Baby's All Right on January 23. "The overarching thing is that Nikki and I are just moving in different directions in our lives. And that’s the cool thing about our band: we are really different individuals. We tried to bridge that gap for a long time, and that's part of what made us interesting. There just kind of came a point at some time this year where we were trying to work on a new album and we just realized we’re just moving too far in two different directions, and that forcing it to work was just going to force us to hate each other. We thought it might be better if we just say, you know, 'Let’s take a break from this; let’s go do other things with our lives, and let’s preserve the almost-decade of time we spent together and go out on a high note' instead of everything just combusting or something.
"There’s so many bands that just break up and are over and they hate each other and they never talk again, they never do another tour, and we’d rather just say, 'This isn’t working right now,'" she continues. "We’ve tried everything, and there are certain factors that we’re not able to compromise on, creatively... We thought, 'Let's have a last tour, let’s say you know, goodbye to our fans and have fun doing it and then maybe that will leave us more of an opportunity to possibly do something in the future, someday. Or not. But we felt like it’s better that way."
Those Darlins are currently taking requests for the farewell tour; they're incorporating fan favorites into the set list every night, and preparing for this has been an emotional exercise, as Jessi's been revisiting clips and recordings of her teenaged self as she navigates the early days of her band's infancy. (I made sure to ask for "$," which remains one of my absolute favorite Those Darlins tracks, or favorite tracks, period.)
"I started playing in this band when I was a month into being seventeen," she reflects. "When we started out, we printed our own shirts, designed our own logos, made all our own posters and booked our own shows. We bought our first tour van for $300. We met J.T., our manager, and then we started our own label with him, and we put out all three of our albums and we toured the U.S. a billion times. We toured all of Canada several times, we toured Europe, Australia, we went to Beijing. We opened for crazy people: Joan Jett, Dan Auerbach, we got to play with John Fogerty twice — we played with so many cool people and got so many huge, awesome, unbelievable experiences in the last nine years where I was like, 'Fifteen-year-old me would be freaking the fuck out right now.' And then there were moments where just, present-day me was freaking the fuck out. It’s just funny looking back because we’re sort of re-learning some songs that we’ve played in the past for this tour, and I haven’t been that emotional about it at all, but this one day I was just practicing, and I watched one video of us playing 'Snaggletooth Mama' from when I was probably, like, eighteen, and then I watched another video from last year’s SXSW, and I noticed things. I can tell my voice has grown a lot since then, and I can play guitar better than that or whatever, but in some way, I felt really disconnected from that person — like it wasn’t me that was playing that. It felt like so much has happened since then that I felt like I was watching someone else. But also, I had this feeling like, 'Fuck yeah! Go you, little eighteen-year-old me! You stuck it out!' That’s fucking cool. After I watched those is when I really started to feel emotional. Floodgates opened because it triggered something that was really deep — this [has been] just a huge part of my life and my identity for like almost half of my life now."
From here, the Darlins will splinter and work on their own creative paths: Jessi and Linwood are playing together on a new project, and they've already got a new album well underway. Both Nikki and Jessi are fantastic visual artists in addition to stellar musicians, and their art will continue to be seen and heard beyond Nashville.
"It's weird at shows to be like, 'We’ll see ya next time!' I guess that doesn’t really apply in this situation," she says. "I just feel really proud of what we’ve accomplished as two women who play guitar in the music industry carving a space for ourselves and making our own statement and being ourselves and getting people excited. I’ll miss that element of our band and just going out there and doing that together. We’ve grown up together in this band. Nikki was twenty-two and I was seventeen. That’s, like, a really huge Learning How to Be An Adult time, learning who the hell we are and what the hell we even wanna do with our lives. In some ways, it's like, you’re with your family, and sometimes you just have to say, 'Well, it’s time for me to go out there and see what I can do for myself.' You know what I mean?"
Unfortunately, yeah: one of Those Darlins' best attributes is their ability to say exactly what they're thinking and feeling without the hint of a filter, and we get it. They're not in the place to be making music together right now. In the meantime, there's a raucous rock affair to witness Saturday night, and a decade of songs to soak up. Those Darlins are closing a door, but they aren't locking it. Maybe we'll get that "We'll see ya next time!" after all. And maybe we'll get one more round of "Wild One," too.
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