“Misbehavin’,” the Cracker Barrel hootenanny embedded within Sunday night’s episode of The Righteous Gemstones, sounds hauntingly familiar. You’ve heard this song before, maybe, somewhere. The melody hits the ear like a twangy, AM-radio take on Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” but the lyrics are hilariously wholesome in their depiction of youthful naughtiness.
What is this song?
Shazam it all you want, and you won’t find it. Because the song was invented for the show by creator Danny McBride, writer and co-star Edi Patterson, and composer Joseph Stephens.
When McBride was putting together his saga about a Southern-fried family of megachurch preachers in spiritual decline, he knew legitimacy would be crucial. He interviewed several preachers to help get the texture right, but there was one particular element of the show he knew would need a lot of extra care and attention. All the music that played throughout the series had to sound like the siren song of salvation, like music that could conceivably draw in parishioners like flies to holy honey.
It had to sound, literally, like the gospel truth.
“If what the Gemstones do feels corny and fake, then it instantly becomes like, ‘Well, why would these people come to the church?’ It doesn’t make sense,” McBride says. “So, nailing that stuff with authenticity and dispensing those songs as though they’re real, that to us solidifies the idea that the Gemstones are successful because they’re good at what they do and what they provide. Having those musical performances be on point was kind of essential for us.”
The creator worked closely with two bands not only to design the music of the show but also to perform it during scenes set in church. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based band The Alternative Champs plays the house band for the Gemstones Salvation Center, and The Dynamite Brothers, comprised of McBride friends, play the house band for the Locust Grove church. Both bands produce original, choral-tinged songs, backed by guitars and organs—dedicated to the glory of His love. One need not be steeped in the world of modern religious music to recognize that this is a dead-on interpolation of it rather than any kind of send-up. The show may be very much a comedy, but the music in it is no joke.
The pinnacle of original songwriting on Gemstones, though, has to be “Misbehavin’,” the bouncy banger that ostensibly helped establish (now-deceased) matriarch Aimee-Leigh Gemstone as a family-friendly phenomenon.
Watch a clip from HBO below, and then read on for a brief oral history from McBride, his Gemstones and Vice Principals collaborator Edi Patterson, and composer Joseph Stephens, who apparently created the song together in about the time it takes to listen to it.
A consequential stage direction
Baby Billy Freeman, the character played by Walton Goggins, was originally in a musical duo with his sister Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (Jennifer Nettles), wife of patriarch preacher Eli (John Goodman). If the pair’s music was going to be mentioned, it stands to reason it would eventually have to be played.
Danny McBride: It’s kind of funny how quickly the song came together. [Staff writer] John Carcieri wrote in the third episode when you first meet Baby Billy, he had just kind of written a stage direction that there’s an album cover on the wall that says Misbehavin’, and it’s Baby Billy and young Aimee-Leigh. Then eventually we got to writing an episode where we decided you’re going to finally hear the song.
Edi Patterson: The first time you hear it is episode five, but we knew it existed, and it had been referenced earlier. So we kind of had this idea floating around for a while of Aimee-Leigh and Baby Billy were this duo, and we had decided that’s what their hit song was named, but we didn’t know what that song was going to be yet. Then the day came where we realized, “Oh right, this song is gonna be performed in this show.” Then it came that time where we were like, “Oh shit, now this needs to be an actual song.”
Spitting lyrics back and forth
McBride had listened to a lot of evangelical music while developing the show, but between him and Patterson there was only a shallow familiarity with the genre. However, Patterson’s improv background as a Groundling had given her opportunity in the past to improvise a country song or a contemporary Christian song on the spot.
McBride: We were in the writers’ room one day, and I just had this little jingle in my head, and then when I said the first line to Edi she started laughing. Then we just kinda started spitballing for like 10 minutes, just spitting lyrics back and forth, and we came up with a rough idea of what we wanted the song to be.
Patterson: Danny had the first two lines kinda floating in his head, and then that inspired me, and I started writing stuff down on paper. He made me think of, like, what are the specifics of what this equals? Then I started picturing old-time country ideas, at least in my head. So “pies on the windowsill” and “swimming in the crick.” I grew up in Texas, so I could think of some things that are very evocative of just being in the country. “Catching crawdads.” It just made us laugh, to think about their toys being “playing with a stick.” And I thought, okay, so we’ve got a lot of this country imagery, what’s a funny organic way to get Jesus in there? Then that phrase popped in my head: “The man with the thorny crown.” That’s when I realized, oh right, this is the point in their lives when they want to not be bad kids. That’s what the song is about.
A pivotal voice memo
One lyrical door would open up into a bigger room, and eventually the pair had enough material to get composer Joseph Stephens involved.
Joseph Stephens: Even though “Misbehavin'” has a bit of religious background, I also wanted to give it a Carter Family/Johnny Cash kind of vibe. I knew that world a little better than, like, the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker world.
Patterson: After we had a big chunk of the song, for whatever reason, we had a melody in our head. We knew what it sounded like. So we just recorded it into a phone with me singing it and sent it to Joey.
Stephens: I had the script and Danny told me about his pitch for the song, so I had already been composing based on the rough lyrical content that he gave me. Before I even sent anything back to him, though, he sent me a voice memo in a text with Edi singing the hook of the song. Once I heard that, it all made sense. Three hours later, the whole thing was written. I created a chord structure for it and added more lyrics.
Patterson: Joey added some amazing lines like “Running through the house with a pickle in my mouth,” which I think may be the funniest line in that song. I don’t know why. Why do I know that that’s a bad little mischievous kid? Like, what’s wrong with running through the house with a pickle in your mouth? It just is.
Stephens: What I had been concocting was totally different than what the song ended up being, so that voice memo totally changed it.
This must be an old song that exists
The finished product, “Misbehavin’,” is pure, sweet and funny all at once. The song, which comes up again beyond episode five, ultimately feels like a representation of the time when the family truly was what it pretends to be in present day.
McBride: Joey finished the song up and composed all the music to it and then the next morning we just suddenly had this finished song.
Stephens: I turned what I had in to Danny and asked him what he wanted to do from here, and he was like, “Don’t change a thing!”
Patterson: The response to it has been, honestly, so incredibly fun. The first day when Jennifer [Nettles] and Walton [Goggins] performed it, people were walking around on their phones trying to find the song on iTunes or whatever. Because they didn’t understand, they thought like, “Oh, this must be an old song that exists.” I kept having to tell numerous people that definitely, “Oh no, this is a brand-new song.” People seem to really like it, though. It’s sticky. It gets in your head really fast, and for whatever reason you remember it and you just know it.
McBride: It felt like this song was so necessary for the world of the Gemstones. That song, in essence, sums up what the whole show is about. Don’t do bad things and fuck around—or bad things will happen to you.