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Meet singer-songwriter Marilyn Darrell

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Woman smiling with a hand on the side of her neck. She is leaning against a wooden fence.
Photo by Livia Skalberg
Marilyn Darrell
Senior Administrative Program Coordinator, Office of the Registrar
3 years at UT

Like so many Austin residents, Marilyn Darrell isn’t a native Texan. It was love and music that led her here.

She grew up on a farm in Nebraska and in the redwoods of northern California before spending 12 years in Oregon. While in San Diego for work, she met her future husband, Austin musician Howdy Darrell, playing bass for roots musician Wayne Hancock.

“I was living up in Oregon, and we were in a long-distance relationship,” she says. “We had started co-writing some songs before I decided to make the move down here.”

Darrell made that move in 2015 and started working at the university the next year. She and Howdy married and started playing shows together under the moniker Screen Door Slammers — she came up with the name from a lyric in Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” The duo’s Americana sound is influenced by artists such as Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Richard Thompson.

Darrell’s youth was steeped in melodies.

“I’ve been playing music since I can remember,” she says. “I grew up in a musical family, with a lot of picking parties, porch jams, that sort of thing. Music was always part of it. My grandmother, who was born in 1901, taught me how to play ragtime piano.”

While working as a labor economist in Nebraska, Darrell made the decision to quit her job and go back to school to study art, which prompted her move to Oregon.

“I focused on painting,” she says. “Doing my thesis, I was doing mostly abstract painting. My mother died six weeks before I started the program. My dad died the day I was supposed to defend my thesis. So my work was all about the sublime and mortality. And all I did was listen to murder ballads. I watched (musician) Jim White’s (documentary) “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” over and over. I listened to the Weary Boys. In my thesis bibliography, I even put in some articles on yodeling, which really had nothing to do with it. So even then, music was already really my focus.

“But in my mind, I thought I couldn’t be a musician,” she says. “That’s somebody else. You have to be ordained to do that. But when I moved down here, with my husband being a musician, we just started playing.”

As well as singing and writing songs, Darrell plays guitar, mandolin and accordion. Her husband is something of a luthier and actually made the mandolin they play.

The duo has been playing more full band shows, trying to land as many festival gigs as they can, and they have been doing some recording, with plans to release their first EP this winter. Of course, that’s in addition to her professional career at UT.

“Trying to balance career and artistic pursuits is sort of a double-edged sword,” she says. “The day job is the thing that gives you some peace of mind and allows you to go out and do this. There’s obviously not a ton of money doing (music). It’s a labor of love, and it’s your passion, a thing you can’t imagine not doing, but you wish you had all the time in the world to spend on it. So, there are those moments when you’re toiling away in your office and you just kind of have to be grateful for what it is and what it provides and maintain that energetic balance.”