How much is a good song worth? Jessi Darlin found out early one morning when she was awakened in her hotel by an itch to get some lyrics down. “I got up at 6 a.m.,” she recalls, noting that her band—the Nashville-via-Murfreesboro rabble-rousers Those Darlins—had played a late show the night before and hadn’t even arrived at their hotel until well after 3 a.m. “I just woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. All I wanted to do was go down to the car and play guitar.”
In the parking lot, she plugged in her phone to recharge and sat there noodling on her guitar, picking out a melody in her head. Soon, she had a new song, “Waste Away.” “The whole thing just wrote itself from beginning to end,” she says with a disbelieving laugh, “and I just sat there wondering where the hell it came from.”
With its measured pace and dark emotional implications, “Waste Away” is a very different kind of song for Those Darlins, whose music tends toward love-shack rave-ups that split the difference between Hank Williams and The Runaways, between Kitty Wells and the B-52s. The band is perhaps best known for sweaty live shows and boozy antics, but this particular song examines the downside to that rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. “It’s about having friends or loved ones who are hitting it too hard,” Jessi says, “and it’s almost too painful to continue your relationship with them because it’s just not good for you. You can see yourself in them.”
But a great song always carries a hefty price. “I was in the car sweating profusely for hours,” Jessi says with a laugh, “and when they all got in to leave, we discovered I had drained the battery charging my phone!”
Despite that setback, Those Darlins really are going places—and on their own dime to boot. The three founding members—Jessi, Kelley and Nikki—met as instructors at the Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp, which Kelley founded in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a small college town just south of Nashville (and just down the road from Bonnaroo). They each adopted the Darlin surname and started pounding out a rough but exuberant mix of punk and honkytonk. The music was fun, but the business was serious: Those Darlins formed their own label, hired friends to create distinctive album packaging and press materials, self-released their full-length debut in 2009, and began touring tirelessly.
With their lively shows (they just extended their current tour through October) and tough-minded lyrics about wild, snaggletoothed women and straying lovers, Those Darlins simultaneously played up to and completely annihilated every girl-group expectation imaginable, not only proving themselves as rowdy and riotous as any male punk-honkytonk band but shaming you for wondering why they couldn’t be. Rambunctious and raw on the surface, their songs provide sophisticated commentary on gender differences. “Wild One,” from their debut, was written as a response to the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild,” defending that song’s subject and her supposedly wild ways. On “Be Your Bro,” the first single from their follow-up Screws Get Loose, Jessi unleashes her frustration on a platonic guyfriend who wants benefits: “I just wanna run and play in the dirt with you,” she sings. “You just wanna stick it in.”
But Those Darlins bristle at the notion of a girl group, not only because they’re women but also because they have added a new member, drummer Linwood Regensberg, who’s a dude. While he doesn’t get the Darlin surname like his bandmates, he’s an equal voice in the democratic band, even writing and singing on Screws Get Loose. “He’s an amazing drummer,” says Jessi, who also plays with him in the side project Funstix. “He’s also a great guitar player and songwriter. I think he could be an awesome frontman. He’s pretty important in helping us in the new direction we’ve been going.”
Screws Get Loose expands the sound of Those Darlins’ debut significantly, with a tighter, more aggressive attack, and fuller, more resourceful arrangements that range from the ’shrooms-and-moonshine psychedelia of “Mystic Mind” to the caustic surf-rock roar of “$.” All four members hold their own when it comes to songwriting, occasionally penning their own tracks but more often writing in pairs. “Everybody’s going through different things at different times,” Jessi says, “so it can be hard if you write with one person. Maybe you’re going through heartbreak and they’re happy as can be, or they want to write a fast song and you want to write a slow one. So it’s good to have three people to bounce ideas off of.”
Writing “Waste Away,” however, was something Jessi had to do alone. “The songs that are hardest to write are actually the most personal,” she says, “so I think that’s the reason I write by myself so much—how could anybody else know what you’re talking about? I go to Nikki when I want to write a fun song. Every song she writes is a fun dance number, and we get ridiculously silly together. Obviously. That’s where you get things like ‘Fatty Needs a Fix.’”
A teary-eyed afterparty lament rather than a tongue-in-cheek party starter, “Waste Away” estimates the very cost of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle they espouse, offering proof that they’re maturing musically and lyrically but not at the expense of the traits that distinguished them from so many other similar acts. Long after they recharged their battery, the song still pays off: “When we play that live, I think about certain people,” Jessi says. “And a lot of nights there’s someone in the audience there who I feel that way about—people going through similar things with people they know. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say that that song really caught them off guard.” The song caught her off guard as well, but Those Darlins are learning to roll with the punches and throw some powerful hooks themselves.