"The Other Half": Where Country Meets Crime
Pain, loss, and violence are the lifeblood of crime fiction, but also the dark seam that runs through the very best country music.
Okay, that may be a statement I’ve shamelessly lifted from the CD cover of The Other Half, a collaboration between best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham and country band My Darling Clementine, but it’s pertinent enough to make one wonder just why it’s taken so long for anyone to come up with this cracking idea. Billingham's original story, about a lonely former Las Vegas showgirl working shifts in a rundown Memphis bar and looking at all her customers, weaves around My Darling Clementine's powerful and poignant songs. It's a concept that works brilliantly well, both on CD and at their shared live shows.
So whose idea was it? I recently asked Michael Weston King of My Darling Clementine. “Mark is a big country music fan anyway," Weston says, "and he started to come to the My Darling Clementine shows. So we’d met a couple of times. But this really started when he put one of our songs in his book The Bones Beneath. His detective DI Thorne is a big country music fan as well, and he has to go on a long journey from London to North Wales. So he puts together a compilation CD, which includes our song A Hundred Thousand Words.
“But it was actually a promoter who I’d worked with a number of times who said, 'Have you thought of collaborating with Mark in the same way as Ian Rankin did with Jackie Leven?’ So for better or worse, it’s down to the wonderful Craig Pickering of Biddulph!”
“What’s different,” chips in King's other half, Lou Dalgleish, “is that, unlike when Jackie Leven was working with Ian Rankin, Mark has actually written the story around our songs, which he called the tent-pegs of the story. Which was great for us," she adds with a laugh. "We didn’t actually have to write anything!”
“Each song is like the closing lines of a chapter about the different characters who frequent this bar in Memphis," King adds. "Without the songs, the chapter and the story doesn’t work."
“Trying to write a good short story can be quite a task sometimes,” admits Billingham, “but this was a pleasure to do because I had these songs in place. All I had to do was to look at these songs, imagine who these people were, and think about these characters, then create a framework with a narrator.
“The songs were quite often the dark punchline, or they continue the story, or start bits of the story. I know that when Mike and Lou sing those songs now they’re singing them differently because they’re singing about characters who have names and back stories.”
Guest narrators include not only David Morrissey, a good friend of Billingham's since the DI Thorne TV series, but also Graham Parker. Billingham couldn’t make a Dutch festival booking for The Other Half, so King asked GP to step in, which, King says, "He did magnificently. So when it came time to record the album, we thought it would be good to ask him to be involved again.”
Billingham happily admits to being a “massively frustrated performer.”
"Part of the excitement of these shows," he says, "is that the audience really [doesn't[ know what they’re going to get. I’m not saying we’ve invented a new art-form but it is something that not many of the audience will have seen.
“I’m having the time of my life," he adds. "And I’d definitely do it again if Mike and Lou were up for it.”
The Other Half is out now on Hachette Audio and you can get tour details from My Darling Clementine's website.