The course of true love has never run smoothly and never more so than in Country music. Back in the 1920’s The Carter Family were singing of a married woman rocking a cradle and crying in Single Girl, Married Girl before Hank Williams wailed that his son called another man daddy while Jim Reeves was inventing phone sex back in the sixties with He’ll Have To Go. The pinnacle of this war of the sexes was reached with the classic male /female country duos who flourished in the sixties and seventies. Some of them were married, others just business partners but the likes of George and Tammy, Dolly and Porter, Johnny and June (and Bobby Bare with a succession of partners including one album, 1966’s The Game Of Triangles, where he shared two women) fell in and out of love, kissed and made up, divorced and drank all to the delight of the listening public. This public sparring sparked some classic country songs and it was those sounds that My Darling Clementine sought to celebrate when they recorded their first album, How Do You Plead ? in 2011. Married couple Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, both successful musicians, adopted the persona of a troubled, loving and warring couple on the album and subsequent live shows, Dalgleish led to the stage like a bride, a heart shaped teardrop painted on her cheek.
Their second album, The Reconciliation, was in a similar vein, the pair reinvigorating the genre with wit and a genuine regard although that didn’t stop them from remarking on the subservient role for women that was oft expected back in those days. A successful collaboration with crime writer Mark Billingham found the pair soundtracking his stories about a waitress in a rundown bar on The Other Half which led to a long run of multimedia shows based on the album before they embarked on their third album, Still Testifying, which comes out this week.
On Still Testifying King and Dalgleish are still the quintessential country duo but they’ve moved on from the pedal steel and string swept weepies of Nashville to add some soul to their country with horns and Hammond organ moving them closer to Memphis this time. Recalling the reinvigoration of artists such as Elvis and Dusty Springfield who made some of their best music with the Memphis Cats along with the southern soul sounds of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham with even a little bit of Bacharach and David thrown in the album is a fine progression.
On the eve of a major tour supporting the album release we spoke to King and Dalgleish about the album and started off by asking them about this step into the world of country soul.
MWK. Well we didn’t really want to carry on making the same record. When we did the first one we knew what we wanted to do and we really weren’t thinking that in a few years time we’d be up to album number three so it’s evolved somewhat. We’ve kind of stepped away from the classic country duet type of thing and in a way it seemed like a natural progression. It’s kind of strange really that recently a lot of artists are starting to work in this country soul vein, folk like Danny and the Champions Of the World, Emily Barker and Cale Tyson, all their recent records have been kind of country soul releases. It’s a long overlooked style but I’ve been listening to Dan Penn for over 20 years along with Donnie Fritts and Spooner Oldham, the originators, and I thought it was about time we let some of his influence seep into the music. You’ve got to try and keep things fresh, try to do something a little different and creatively it seemed right for us to head off in this direction.
Although there’s a shift in the music from those classic country duets the themes are pretty much the same, people falling in and out of love and the fall out. The pair of you are still duetting and that’s the essence of the drama in the album I think.
LD. Well I’m particularly partial to the drama. When I’m writing the story tends to be more dramatic but if we stay together (laughs) and continue to write for each other then there’s an inevitability that we’ll write songs about couples. We’ll write about things we know and we’ll never run out of stories whether they grow out of things we’ve experienced or that we might imagine could happen to us or indeed any other couples in love.
I read that Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel came about when you saw a couple acting somewhat furtively in a car park when you were on tour.
MWK. Yes. That grew from me seeing a couple in a car park and just imagining what was going on with them. Whether any of it is real or not we don’t know of course but we just wrote what we thought was happening with that couple.
On a couple of the songs you’re referencing or, in the case of Jolene’s Story, answering an earlier song.
MWK. That goes back a bit to No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) (on The Reconciliation) where there was a very poignant, almost protest message.
LD. I just thought I should write a reply song to Dolly’s kind of in the same way as I wrote that one about Tammy. I just thought that Jolene probably had a story that needed to be told. There are two sides to every story and so I told Jolene’s. There’s no blame or fault here, I think maybe it’s just love and destiny and the way things turn out.
Talking about both sides of the story on I’m Just a Woman you’re again looking at it from the viewpoint of the “wronged” woman.
LD. Here I wanted to reflect that line in Tammy’s song where she sings, “after all he’s just a man”, to put in a subtle reference against that song. Sometimes I can’t help myself when I’m writing a country song; the feminist in me just can’t keep quiet about that sort of thing.
Two Lane Texaco isn’t a relationship song but more about faded communities and the loss of the ties that bound them, industries closing down and such. You sing here of the power of radio back then and as such it reminded me thematically of Dave Alvin’s Border Radio.
MWK. It’s a similar tale. The Shreveport tower I mention was one of the first to have that high wattage allowing it to broadcast across the southern states, shows like The Louisiana Hayride and The Grand Ole Opry. But the place I mention in the song, Megawatt Valley, is actually an area in the north east of England with power stations and such and I just liked the name and it seemed to fit in with the song. It really all harks back to a time when radio was key with everybody listening to it and OK, it’s an American theme but at the same time a lot of small towns across Britain have lost their industries and community. When I was young I listened to the radio a lot more, it’s really a nostalgic song looking back to what maybe was a better time.
I particularly enjoyed the lyrics on Since I Fell For You which have a lot of lines taken from other songs with a whole middle eight dedicated to songs that have the word walking in them.
MWK. I had written the first two lines and then realised they were actual song titles so I thought it would be kind of quirky and an interesting exercise to make all of the lines in the middle eight be song titles. There were plenty I could have used that feature walking – walking the floor over you, don’t walk away Renee, walk on by … the list goes on- but I settled on the ones you hear so thanks to Jimmy Bland, Ray Price, Helen Shapiro and The Searchers for the loan. On stage I refer to this section of the song, and how we “ran out of words so just used 60’s song titles” After we have played it we sometimes ask the audience how many they recognised? One thing we learned from our recent tour in the USA is that …. Helen Shapiro never had a hit over there!
Two of the songs, Friday Night At the Tulip Hotel and The Embers And The Flames, were on The Other Half album. Why did you rerecord them?
LD. On that album Mark Billingham picked songs from our first two albums that he thought would fit in with his story but we needed some more and so we wrote those two specifically for The Other half with Mark co-writing The Embers and The Flame. And then when we started on Still Testifying we thought that they needed more exposure as they were so new.
Was that because the originals were acoustic and you had the opportunity to add the band arrangements?
MWK. Well all the songs start that way. They’re written on acoustic guitar or piano. Tulip and Embers as you say were acoustic and we thought they could benefit from a fuller arrangement. We didn’t want them to kind of get left on that album so we decided to use them again.
The Embers And The Flame in particular gets the full bells and whistles production with the horns really driving the song along while the guitars and pedal steel give it an almost Flying Burrito Brothers’ feel and it fits right into the country soul aspect of the album. I was wondering if when you were writing the new songs for the album you were consciously trying to fit into a country soul bag?
LD. Well the new ones do lend themselves to more of a country soul approach. You can obviously hear that it’s country soul because of the horns and the organ but at the end of the day the song itself will give you the flavour of where it’s coming from. When we play them live, whether it’s with the seven-piece band or just the two of us this country soul edge will come through. Of course it will sound different but we’ve always been quite passionate about being able to deliver the songs fully just as a duo and we don’t hide behind the band. It’s the songs that dictate the genre more than the dressing up they get on an album or a band gig.
The album ends with Shallow which is a more stripped back affair and features your daughter, Mabel, singing.
LD. She’s very talented and becoming quite the multi instrumentalist. She been coming on the road with us for years and she knows all our songs and now she’s of an age where we thought we could put her to work! It’s not just us saying, “oh it would be nice to have our daughter on the record“, she has something to contribute and it was actually our producer, Neil Brockbank who said, “I think we should have Mabel on this” and afterwards I thanked him for being so nice to her he said, “I wasn’t doing it to be nice. She was the perfect fit for the song”.
Well he did a great job with the production, the band sound great.
MWK. Neil’s got a great deal of experience and he and the band have worked with people like Elvis Costello and Van Morrison so they have a good understanding of soul and country. We had planned to record some of the album in America but that fell through but I don’t really think it matters if its Tooting or Tennessee as long as you can get that feel. It is much more of a mixed bag than the other records and hopefully that adds to the interest. We’re really proud of it and we’re really looking forward to going out on tour with the band.
Finally can I say that the album packaging is excellent. The pictures of the pair of you are really evocative with something of a southern gothic touch and the photos of the religious items inside the cover are kind of spooky.
MWK. The photographs of us were taken by a well-known Dutch photographer, Marco Bakker. We always pride ourselves on the packaging of the albums. In these days of downloads the nicer and more tangible something is to hold and look at is important, it’s part of the creative element to making a record. As for the pictures inside the sleeve, one night we played in The Hague and the promoter put us up in what basically was a monastery. It was kind of scary really, long corridors full of dusty old religious iconography so I ran around taking pictures of it and we decided to use some of them inside the album cover as it kind of fits in with the whole Testifying gospel vibe we were looking for.
Still Testifying is released on June 2nd and My Darling Clementine tour through June and July, all dates here
Photography by Marco Bakker
Neil Brockbank: Just hours after this interview was published it was announced that producer Neil Brockbank had died. The band and many others are devastated by this news and Michael Weston King paid tribute to Neil with some touching words on his Facebook page. He produced numerous albums for many artists but is probably best known for his lengthy body of work with Nick Lowe. Our condolences to his family and his many friends.