If you missed HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones and its insanely catchy mid-season tune “Misbehavin’,” then scroll down to the bottom of this article. I’ve embedded the song for you here completely for your convenience and personal enjoyment, so you’ve no excuse. Just go ahead and play.
The Righteous Gemstones holds many classic dark comic moments, but nothing is as joyous and as infectiously funny as “Misbehavin’.” Performed in the show by the dynamic brother and sister duo of “Baby” Billy Freeman (the great Walton Goggins) and Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (country star Jennifer Nettles), the song is the praise-worthy love child of series creator and star Danny McBride, co-star Edi Patterson, and composer Joseph Stephens. Unsurprisingly, the song has taken on a life of its own outside of The Righteous Gemstones as a buzz-worthy internet sensation.
“We knew that we had something because we were all obsessed about it, and we kept listening to it amongst ourselves repeatedly,” co-creator Stephens recalls. “That was just a demo version with just me singing it. We didn’t know what to expect, but we felt like we had something. Once we had Jennifer Nettles singing her version of it and, once the actors performed it, it took on a new life.”
Any concerns over Nettles’s reaction to the child-like song given her religious background and vast country-based following were immediately dispelled. Stephens remembers her as completely game for whatever they would throw at her and says she was a consummate professional. Her involvement was so thorough, in fact, the team recorded a version of the song sung entirely by Nettles.
“Misbehavin'” evolved through the series as the story found ways to organically include it. Eagle-eyed viewers first become aware of the tune through a background shot in the pilot of “Baby” Billy and Aimee-Leigh’s childhood album cover. As their backstory becomes more integral into the plot, the writers decided to bring the song into the main narrative.
Starting with the 1960s version, Stephens believed the song’s sound should stem from the Carter Family or Carter Sisters-type sound. That inspiration drove mixing and instrumentation choices to fit the earlier era. For the 1980s version, the sound was inspired by traditional televangelist shows that offered in-house bands. To fit the passage of time, Stephens reworked the song to mirror more of the later Osmond Family sound or an 80s contemporary religious vibe.
The lyrics came from the collaboration between Danny McBride and Edi Peterson in the writers’ room and Stephens recording in his studio.
“Before the shoot began, I got a voice mail that had Edi singing. They’d been spitballing in the writers’ room about the song once they knew the song had to exist in the show,” Stephens explains. “Edi sang the hook of the song – the first verse and some of the chorus. Once I heard that, things became more clear to me. Lyrically, I implemented some of the lyrics into the idea that came from this voice mail.”
Stephens incorporated his sketched out list of things he wanted to incorporate. The list included childhood no-no’s that cause trouble – whether it be from parents or Satan himself – and how the “man in the thorny crown” turns one around. Once partially written, the song was then only intended to be heard in brief snippets in the 1980s-set flashback. The brilliance of the song and of Nettles and Goggins’ enthusiastic performances spurred the creative team to eventually include the full performance.
Which leads me to my absolute favorite moment of the song… The bizarre, vaguely dirty, mostly innocent lyric:
“Running through the house with a pickle in my mouth.”
Credit Stephens for this moment of lyric brilliance.
“That’s me. I don’t know where that came from. When I was coming up with lines to put in there, for some reason, I wrote that down. I don’t know what it means. It has the image that somehow fit with what we were trying to do which is a little off, left of center, and just kind of playful but also makes you wonder what that kid was doing.”
But Walton Goggins’ delivery sends the lyric into a whole other dimension of weirdness.