It ought to be clear by now that our British cousins have a handle on America’s homespun traditions. We need only look at how the Stones and Led Zeppelin refurbished the blues, or the way Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Robert Plant took to country music and molded it to their own design.
Clearly, those lessons weren’t lost on Michael Weston King, a relentless Anglo troubadour whose earlier efforts included a stint at the helm of the Good Sons, collaborations with Chris Hillman, Ron Sexsmith, and the late Townes Van Zandt, and an entire album of protest tunes reworked in the Greenwich Village tradition. In recent years, King has reinvented himself by teaming with his wife, Lou Dalgleish, in a contemporary duo they’ve dubbed My Darling Clementine. As the name implies, the intent was to recreate the essence of authentic Americana, a fact made all the more apparent in the songs themselves and the way they deliver them. Nearly all the material sounds like standards, each offering the impression that they could have been jukebox staples, plucked from the repertoires of Johnny and June, George and Patsy, or Gram and Emmylou.
“I had kind of grown tired of all that troubadouring, with so many months on the road on my own,” King confesses when asked how the pairing came to be. “I am married to one of the finest singers in the UK and it just seemed crazy we were not collaborating. Yes, she sang on my albums and the occasional gig, and I played on her solo things at times, but we had never done a joint project.”
While the inspiration was essential, so was the desire to make the most of the melodrama that’s always been such an essential part of classic country music. Dalgleish performs her role onstage dressed as a bride, even while bantering with King about the dissolution of their marital bliss.
“I have always loved the idea of the country duet, and George Jones is arguably my favourite singer,” King explains. “Also, given we are now of a certain age, Lou and I wanted to address classic relationship issues aimed at people who have lived a bit [and] been around the block a time or two, just as Johnny and June and George and Tammy were doing, so it seemed the perfect route to take. It also meant I get to wear a safari suit and Lou can dress head to toe in polyester. Putting it simply, we wanted to get back into showbiz.”
It appears they’ve done just that with their latest album, The Other Half, a conceptual piece that finds My Darling Clementine’s songs set as a soundtrack for stories and sketches penned by best-selling British author Mark Billingham. It centers on the tale of a former Las Vegas showgirl who works various shifts in a ratty Memphis bar, giving additional focus to the many odd and offbeat characters who continually help to populate the place. Although Graham Parker and English actor David Morrissey play incidental roles in the production, it’s the seamless thread that binds country music to murder mysteries that makes it all work.
“While he was writing, I sent him a new song I was working on which I felt could be ideal for it, called ‘Friday Night at the Tulip Hotel,’” King explains. “Mark loved it and so it went into the story. We wanted to end the story on a positive up note, about the redemptive power of love, and Mark had some lyrics he felt ended the story well, so I added a tune to that and Lou added a few more lines and we then had ‘As Precious as the Flame,’ a song about getting older, sticking together through thick and thin – the real things in life. And what love means, sticking around no matter how shitty it gets, not all hearts and flowers … the stuff that counts.”
The pair met Billingham at one of their shows, and the author was so impressed with their music that he name-checked one of the pair’s songs in a novel. A mutual friend suggested that they consider collaborating, an idea that instantly appealed to all concerned. As a result, King and Dalgleish re-recorded several songs from their back catalog that then formed the basis of a narrative Billingham had chosen to script into a storyline. It not only works as an album, but the trio have also turned it into a stage show with My Darling Clementine providing the music and Billingham onstage narrating the plot. Vintage slides that show the soddy side of Memphis offer additional illumination.
“It’s hardly Les Miz,” King admits. Nevertheless, With The Other Half, My Darling Clementine reaffirms the fact that they are the UK’s strongest and most assured purveyors of authentic traditional Americana. It’s a superb collection of stories and songs, and would make Johnny and June proud, while giving the rest of us plenty to cheer about as well.
In the meantime, here’s a video from their last album: