Last week, Jessi Zazu Darlin passed away after battling cancer. Jessi had what you call true grit. She talked and walked the way she wanted to. She was a true outsider, in a family of outsiders, which made her part of a wild tribe. When you met Jessi, you felt that you had been ordained an honorary member.
Jessi packed a big, adventurous life into a short amount of time. In fact, she’s the only person that I know of that has been on the cover of the Nashville Scene three different times – once in a story about the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp, again with Those Darlins, and then a profile of her unique life when she announced her illness. We used to jokingly sing “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone” and replace it with “Nashville Scene,” always being careful not to take things too seriously, while also trying not to take them for granted. Jessi was not only a talented and creative musician, but also a very accomplished visual artist. She saw things other people didn’t see and expressed her vision and interpretation of the world through her art.
We played music together for six years, during which time we played countless shows while doing laps around the country, recorded in NYC and Atlanta, released two records on our own record label (with bandmates Linwood Regensburg and Nikki Kvarnes , and manager John Turner), landed songs in hit TV series and a national KIA campaign, licensed records in Australia and Japan, and toured in Australia.
I met Jessi when she was twelve at the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp, but I didn’t really get to know her until she moved to Murfreesboro. She felt isolated in the small town where she lived in Kentucky, got her GED and moved to Tennessee, where she began doing design and screen printing work. She and Nikki lived together in what can only be described as a shack with a tin roof where we formed a tongue-in-cheek social club called H.A.R.L.O.T.S. (Highland Avenue Regal Ladies of Traditional Secrets) with our friend Mandy, whose kitchen we cooked in while practicing clogging. I was working a lot – full time for a live sound company that provided sound systems for large commercial country acts and as the director of the girls rock camps, helping empower others to play music, but I was not actually playing any music myself. When Jessi and Nikki invited me over to play music, I felt like I had finally found my people. I felt free and understood.
We were a ragtag trio looking to get out of Murfreesboro and see the big world and have some even bigger times. We first began touring in a Buick, and would often bring my dog Chewy. We booked our shows through MySpace and printed Mapquest directions. Before there were smartphones, we would settle arguments on the road by phoning our moms. Then we would argue over who’s mom was right. We bought a van for $300 and toured it up and down the East Coast, until it almost left us stranded on the Pennsylvania turnpike. It was baby blue Aerostar from 1989 – the same year that Jessi was born.
Jessi loved Memphis. Those Darlins played Memphis a lot – we loved it here and Memphis loved us. People understood us here. They got it that we were a punk band – that being a punk is an identity and not a sound – while many others thought we were trying to be a glossy country band and simply failing at it. We got a last minute offer to play a weeknight show at the Hi-Tone and of course we took it cause we pretty much just wanted to play any chance we could. We used to line up in a row straight across the stage and I remember asking Jessi, who always stood in the middle, what song we were doing next. For some reason, Nikki thought I said, “tell Nikki I said to go fuck herself.” She got upset with me, threw down a washboard and stomped on it. There were only a few people at the show, but the next time we played Memphis, we played to a packed house. Apparently word spread that we had gotten into a fight onstage and smashed things, and this was a welcome thing in Memphis.
Jessi was only 5’1” – the same height as Prince. When we first started performing, she played a big black acoustic electric guitar that looked even bigger when strapped to her tiny body. She made up for it with big eyes that stared people down when singing “16 Tons” or “King of the Road.” We bonded over a shared love of old country music and the silliness of songs by Roger Miller and Shel Silverstein. Her humor and wit was on par with Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn and she and Nikki played into one another’s comedic timing.
Jessi was such a huge part of making rock camp work, by volunteering every year, teaching screen printing and guitar, and doing countless hours of design work to help promote the program. Besides all of the work she put into sustaining the program, she was a mentor and inspiration to so many of the girls who attended the camp. She was a success story and embodiment of what was possible if you just kept at it.
She was part of the original crew of volunteers who helped establish a girls rock camp program in Memphis, which continues at Hutchinson School today. The first year we ran the camp here, we rented some rooms and hosted the out of town volunteers at the French Quarter Inn in midtown. I remember Jessi seeing the place for the first time and going, “wow, this place is fancy!” with complete sincerity in response to the brassy gold wall sconces. If you ever saw the French Quarter Inn, you know that it was not exactly what most people would call “fancy.”
Jessi had both wisdom and innocence. She was always forward-looking and didn’t spend time on regrets. She had too much to look forward to and too much work to do to be bothered with the past or who did or didn’t like her. She approached life with a kind of play and inspired others to do the same.
My heart split when the band and I went separate ways in 2012. It broke again when I found out the band was calling it quits in 2016. I thought they’d keep going forever, rotating out members like Fleetwood Mac, and that some years down the road, I might even share a stage with them again one day. I followed their activities on the road, read every interview, and lived vicariously through their adventures. I still believed in Those Darlins.
My heart broke again when I heard about Jessi’s illness. I felt that I had somehow failed to help keep someone I cared about safe. During the years we were touring, we did not go to the doctor for preventative check ups. Trips to a doctor were reserved only for extreme things like broken arms or strange rashes. Many people don’t realize what a hard lifestyle touring can be and the toll it can take on one’s health.
As an undergrad, I worked with a feminist organization to raise awareness around women’s health and campaigned on campus, encouraging women I didn’t even know to get their annual exam. But I did not do this for myself and I did not encourage the women who were closest to me to get tested. What I try to carry away from all of this, rather than regret (which Jessi wouldn’t have liked anyway), is that you need to take care of yourself and take care of your friends. Listen to yourself and check in with your friends to maintain the health of your friendships.
Access to healthcare for lower income people and funding for women’s health centers are very personal issues for me. I believe that Jessi’s story is a narrative that could have been avoided, and if even one person reading this is encouraged to make sure they get an annual exam, then maybe Jessi will have helped save someone’s life.
Her impact on so many people’s lives was huge, both in breadth and depth, and she will be greatly missed and greatly remembered.