Those Darlins combine country wit, pop melody and rock democracy

It's easy to love Those Darlins, and not just because of the three lovely ladies who front the band. They possess a bristling verve and winning melodicism that combines the muscular rhythms of punk, girl-group harmonies and the foot-tapping twang of classic country with a keen sense of humor.

The trio " Nikki, Kelley and Jessi, all of whom use the Darlin stage surname " is spiritual kin, but its members' three-part harmonies ring like they were born doing it. But don't be fooled; it took plenty of practice.

"We sat around teaching ourselves, moaning like cats and dogs. I'm so glad no one heard those practices," Kelley said with a laugh.

The band exists mainly because of her efforts, although not how one might think. She'd been interested in playing and listening to music since her tweens, but was discouraged that none of her female friends shared her interest. Then, during her freshman year at Middle Tennessee State University, she heard about the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore.. She returned home that summer and saved money from waitressing to enroll in one of the clinic's weeklong sessions.

"It was really inspiring to be around this really supportive network of women, where you didn't have to explain yourself," Kelley said. "When I came back to MTSU the next school year, I was just convinced. If it's needed in the Northwest, then it's desperately needed in the Southeast."

While it was tough sledding, Kelley wouldn't be denied, and founded her own satellite camp in Murfreesboro, Tenn., which celebrates its eighth year next summer.

She had already graduated by the time Those Darlins came along, by virtue of one of her campers. She was working for country star Kenny Chesney when she got a call from her former camper Jessi and her roommate, Nikki, who invited Kelley to join them on their porch for a little country picking to old tunes by The Carter Family and Hank Williams.

"It was so refreshing not to be in this warehouse of rowdy dudes. To be with some girls, actually performing music and having a hilarious time. It was such a riot," she said.

As time went along, the women decided to start performing, and soon embarked for New York to record a self-titled debut with producer Jeff Curtin, who filled in on drums. After flying Curtin down a couple times to perform with them, the Darlins realized it needed a full-time drummer.

The act turned to roommate Linwood Regensburg, a multi-instrumentalist who'd moved in with the three after becoming their designated housesitter. Now a quartet, and without a sitter, the act hit the road in force with Sheriff Lin, as he's dubbed, "manning" the rhythmic backbone.

Just as the Darlins' harmonies mesh, so do their personalities. None of the musicians is any singular type all of the time. Rather, they change and exchange roles, like the vocal lead.

"We're like yes, no and maybe," Jessi said. "At any given point, one of us is the yes, one of us is the no, and one of us is the maybe."

Those Darlins with The Grates perform at 9 p.m. Friday at Opolis, 113 N. Crawford in Norman. "Chris Parker