The Other Half: where crime fiction meets country music
“I’m not saying we’ve invented a new art form but The Other Half really is something that not many of the audience will have seen. Part of the excitement is that whether people have come to see me read before or they’ve come to see Mike and Lou playing as My Darling Clementine, either way this show is something they won’t really be expecting.”
Crime writer Mark Billingham is talking about The Other Half, a collaboration between the best-selling writer and country band My Darling Clementine that is currently touring, in between all their other commitments.
Both the live show and CD find Billingham reading a brand-new story he’s written centred around a lonely former Las Vegas showgirl working shifts in a rundown Memphis bar, sound-tracked by My Darling Clementine’s powerful and poignant songs.
It works brilliantly well, both on CD where guests include Graham Parker and David Morrissey (who plays Billingham’s D.I. Tom Thorne in the TV series based on the books) and at the live shows. Of course, pain, loss, and violence are not only the lifeblood of crime fiction, but also the dark seam that runs through the very best country music, all of which makes one wonder just why it’s taken so long for anyone to come up with this cracking concept.
So, whose idea actually was it, I ask Michael Weston King of My Darling Clementine.
“Mark is a big country music fan anyway and he started to come to the My Darling Clementine shows. So we met a couple of times after shows and so on. But it really started when he put one of our songs in his book The Bones Beneath. His detective D.I. 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 to listen to on the journey, which includes one of our songs, A Hundred Thousand Words.
“But it was actually a promoter up in Stoke, who I’d worked with a number of times and with Lou too, who said ‘obviously Mark’s a fan, have you thought of collaborating with Mark in the same way as Ian Rankin did with Jackie Leven?’ That was something that had never even crossed our minds, so I forwarded his email on to Mark and he came back and said ‘yeah, fantastic, let’s do something’. So for better or worse it’s down to the wonderful Craig Pickering of Biddulph.”
“What’s different,” chips in 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. We’d already written a story, if you like, through the songs, then Mark arranged them in a certain order and wove his own tale around them.
“Which was great for us as we didn’t actually have to write anything,” she laughs.
“It’s as if there are a series of chapters written about the different characters who frequent this bar in Memphis and each song is like the closing lines of that chapter. Without the songs, the chapter and the story itself doesn’t work,” King explains.
“I’m given to understand that a lot of crime writers like country music because country songs tend to tell stories and they are often quite dark,” says Dalgleish, observing that, in the course of the project, “what Michael and I have suddenly found is that songs we wrote about ourselves, people we knew or subject matter dear to our hearts, within the context of The Other Half, these are sung by specific characters. So for us the songs take on a new meaning and when we perform the songs in the show, we’re now performing them as the character, because they are part of that character’s story.”
“There’s a song called I No Longer Take Pride and in the show it’s about a down at heel, down on his luck character called Paul, who is played on the record by Graham Parker. So whenever I sing that song now I just see Graham slumped at a bar with a large whisky in his hand, which I certainly never did before,” chuckles King.
And how exactly did the songwriter and performer Graham Parker, soon to tour these parts again with his reunited band The Rumour, become involved?
“We’d booked a few shows last year and there was one festival in Holland which at the last minute Mark couldn’t make,” King relates. “So I asked Graham if he would do it, which 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. Mark, obviously, knew David Morrissey from the TV shows so that was how that came about.”
The live shows, Dalgleish explains, “start off almost like a standard My Darling Clementine show, albeit with us as our own warm-up act. Then we explain to the audience that the The Other Half show is about to start, even if we’re still in the first half, if you see what I mean. Half-way through, there’s an interval, after which we continue and conclude The Other Half, after which we become MDC again and play some of the tunes we think would have been on the jukebox in the bar.”
King adds: “There’s a bit of production too, with slides of old Memphis and so on that fit with the songs. It’s hardly Les Miserables but there are lighting effects and so on just to add a bit of theatricality to it.”
How, I asked Billingham, did he get involved in something more akin to his old career as a stand-up comedian than the more solitary gig of writing?
“Somebody I’d done an interview with knew how much I liked country music,” he remembers. “And they said ‘oh you should check out My Darling Clementine’. So I bought the albums and went to see them a few times, said hello after the gigs, that sort of thing.
“Then, when I put a country music playlist at the end of one of my novels just as a bit of fun, they were the only contemporary act on there alongside all the classic greats like Hank Williams. So I sent them a copy of the book and the next thing was Mike sending the email he told you about.
“Trying to write a good short story can be quite a tough ask sometimes but this was a pleasure to do because I had these songs in place. There were three or four songs that I knew pretty much instantly that I wanted to use, plus a couple more that Mike suggested, then all I had to do was to look at these songs, imagine who these characters were and think about their stories, then create a framework with a narrator. So I created Marcia in this bar in Memphis, looking at all her customers.
“The songs were part of the stories, quite often the dark punch-line, or they continue the story, or start bits of the story. I say it’s a dark story but I think both Mike and I were surprised by where we got to and it became quite an uplifting piece. I normally write about death, and there’s a bit of that in this story, but I was writing about love, and also how dangerous that can be.”
Recently, I watched Billingham and Eddie Izzard spin a hugely entertaining hour pretty much out of thin air on stage at the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. But the idea of Billingham being on stage for the whole of The Other Half might come as a surprise to some of the fans of his novels, let alone seeing him sing and play at the end of the show.
“I quite often read on stage but only for a few minutes so to be doing that for a show that lasts an hour and a half is fascinating and I’m loving every minute of it. Of course, I’m a massively frustrated performer. I have a performance background as an actor and a stand-up comic so I’m very comfortable on stage. But it’s a real treat to get to sing and play my guitar. It is a different trick, though, being up on stage for all that time, and much harder work than I thought it would be. I narrate my own novels on audiobook now and the way you have to concentrate on every word, read slowly and with emphasis, plus dozens of different accents, is quite an art.
“But this is something really different for me and something I’m really enjoying. I’m having the time of my life and I’d definitely do it again if Mike and Lou were up for it.”
And are they?
“Absolutely,” King insists. “Although if we were to do it again, even though there are plenty of songs in the canon which might work in a similar way, I think we’d prefer to do it in an even more collaborative way where the songs are all new, perhaps written to a new story Mark has written rather than cherry-picking existing songs.
“We’re also busy writing a whole load of new songs for the new album, so there are a lot of songs to be considered that have never been released before.”
By Kevin Bourke
Upcoming dates for The Other Half with My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham include Barnard Castle, Witham Arts (September 5); Cockermouth, Kirkgate Centre (September 18); Carlisle, The Old Fire Station (September 19); Bury Met (September 25); Selby Town Hall (September 26); Leeds, Carriageworks (October 1); Northallerton, The Forum (October 2); York, The Basement (October 3); Sheffield, Yellow Arch (October 13); Barton-U-Humber, The Ropewalk (October 17); and Liverpool, The Music Room at The Philharmonic (October 18)
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