The Handsome Family wonders about the last days

Dan MacIntosh, July 2006

To call The Handsome Family an unusual familial unit would be an understatement. This tight knit "family" consists of Brett Sparks on lead vocals and most musical instruments, with his wife Rennie Sparks providing lyrics and occasional vocals. Although Brett sings in a wonderfully traditional country voice, Rennie supplies him with lyrics that oftentimes come out like ghost stories put to music.

Speaking of spooks, the opening song on the duo's new "Last Days of Wonder" CD (Carrot Top) is all about one person's metamorphosis from flesh and blood human to ghost. Titled "Your Great Journey," this odd little ditty describes how the "elevator doors close on you" and the way "busses drive right past" once you've achieved weightless invisibility. It later summarizes, "You've begun to dance the Ghost Dance." This story, which reads like a screenplay straight out of "The Twilight Zone," begins - oddly enough - with a few highly scientific lines. "Like four million tons of hydrogen/exploding on the sun." Such lab-ready phraseology isn't out of place on this work because scientist Nicola Tesla is spotlighted with the very next track, "Tesla's Hotel Room."

"There's just something wonderful and beautiful about him and also tragic and bizarre," Rennie elaborates on Tesla's life. "He's just one of those scientists I wish more scientists were like because he was a real mystic as well as being a scientist, a real visionary kind of person who believed in the invisible world around him."

Yep, Tesla is exactly Rennie's kind of scientist. It was almost as if circumstances kept nagging at Rennie until she finally wrote this song about the man. "I read a lot of things on the internet, and I'd seen some shows on PBS and heard some radio shows," she says. "And his name just kept popping up in a lot of different places...places I was just looking for other things," Rennie explains. "Harry Smith...there was a book of interviews with him, and he talked about Tesla. And I kept hearing Tesla, Tesla, Tesla everywhere."

"And (she) started listening to the band Tesla all the time, too," Brett jokes. Brett, by the way, is many times the comic relief in this two-person act.

The Handsome Family is kind of a musical marriage made in heaven because they often compensate for each other. "Rennie reads, and I listen to music," Brett states matter-of-factly.

"I probably just have a better understanding of words than I do of music," Rennie continues. "I know you (Brett) can listen to lots of classical pieces, whereas I can only say, "Oh, that's pretty'."

"By some strange twist of fate, Rennie, you ended up being in a band," Brett says jokingly. "Before (the group), she was a writer, and we lived together for seven years before we ever collaborated on a song. She was always writing stories before then."

These days, Rennie is writing a lot of twisted love stories, which Brett then puts to music. There is an odd approach to the dating ritual running through "Last Days of Wonder," which make you scratch you head over Rennie's unusual perspective on boy/girl relationships. For example, "Bowling Alley Bar" describes a special encounter at a bowling alley.

"Well, I think you should be able to find romance anywhere, if you know how to look for it," defends Rennie. "Why can't you sing about love inside a bowling alley? Love should be a force that can be brought into any situation."

These particular love songs bring out the redneck, if you will, in The Handsome Family. These tracks also point out how Rennie oftentimes writes with Brett's voice in mind because this man has a voice that was obviously born to cry country songs. "I do, but I sometimes push the boundaries a little bit," Rennie explains, when asked if she hears Brett's voice singing her words. "Sometimes, we try things, and they don't work."

"Really?" Brett asks mockingly. "You're not supposed to tell anybody that."

"On the "Hunter Green" song, we ended up having me sing it," Rennie continues. "But most of the time, I end up writing things I can envision him singing."

"It's more what's appropriate for the song," says Brett, "rather than my style or ego or whatever."

In contrast to the way most songs are created, The Handsome Family lyrics almost always come before the tunes.

That's the way "it happens in rock music, I think," supposes Rennie. "I think with traditional songwriting, usually the words come first, as with Gilbert & Sullivan and Tin Pan Alley."

"And Gershwin or Cole Porter" Brett adds.

"Willie Nelson...I'll bet he writes the words first," Rennie suggests.

"Yeah maybe, I don't know," Brett wonders. "Most popular music is kind of riff-oriented, and then the lyrics are just kind of improvised afterwards. I think it's nice to have a map. The lyrics are kind of maps for the songs. They kind of tell you how the music should behave in a way. I don't know if that makes any sense. Actually, when I used to write songs, I started with lyrics too."

So where does The Handsome Family stand within the broad spectrum of country music? "That's for other people to decide," Rennie answers.

"Six feet under the ground," Brett jokes. "We're a fly in the ointment."

The Handsome Family may not ever get adopted into the mainstream country music family, but there's still plenty of country music in their bloodline. "I think we've listened to a lot of countrypolitan stuff, like Jim Reeves and Ray Price, with very lush orchestration that was really romantic country," says Rennie seriously. "And I think, like, some George Jones, too. I think those were the big inspirations on us."

"Yeah, I think maybe the two biggest influences on us would be folk music of the Twenties and Thirties, and after that, that countrypolitan like Ray Price and George Jones," Brett continues. "That heavily orchestrated stuff that people generally call the Nashville sound. Like what Chet Atkins produced, stuff like that. The earlier stuff. Billy Sherrill stuff. (But) I don't know where we fit in within the broad spectrum of country music."

Those days, when Reeves was at the height of his popularity, hold a special place in The Handsome Family's dark little hearts.

"That time period was a really special place, where country music had lost its sort of hillbilly-ness and become more urban and sophisticated," says Rennie.

"It was kind of reactionary against rock and roll too," Brett tones in.

"Rock & roll was getting crazy, and these guys were just such gentlemen," adds Rennie. "It was lovely."

Although they each have a firm grip on country music history, don't expect them to tell you what's hot on the country charts these days. "I don't listen to any modern country music, other than...actually I don't think I listen to any," Brett admits. "Unless it's bluegrass or something, but that's not really country music. I do listen to some modern rock music, but it would kind of be marginal stuff. I like Beck, and I like good pop, basically. The Shins are a good band. Grandaddy, stuff like that. I like clever, intelligent pop music, but not much coming out of Nashville interests me lately."

"We kind of like the people that have been cut out of that sort of world, like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and George Jones; people that used to be the center of it and then sort of got away from it," Rennie clarifies.

"Ever since they got rid of the George Jones gift shop, it's all over!" quips Brett, ever the jokester.

"Our vision of Nashville is an imaginary past," says Rennie with more than a little regret.

The Handsome Family just returned from a tour of the UK, where fans enjoyed their music without perhaps completely comprehending their odd country roots. "I don't think they know much about American country," says Rennie. "Maybe that's why they don't realize how weird we are," she jokes this time.

"I think there may be a little more...I don't know what the word is...they're a little more thoughtful," Brett continues. "They're willing to spend a lot of time on it. God knows why. They're really serious music fans over there, and I don't think they hardly know anything about the history of country music. I think they know even less about the history of American folk. To a certain extent, that's kind of cool because it's new to them. When we went over there for the first time, it was charming that they didn't think alt.-country was something that we would laugh at. In the U.S., when people call you alternative country or insurgent country or whatever, everyone kind of bristles a little bit. But over there, they're so excited and into it, it was kind of cool."

"People always label music," Brett realizes. "Classical music. Baroque music. Jazz, whatever. Impressionism. People label things, and that's the history of art and music. There's nothing you can do about that. You just hope that the labels sell a couple of the records you hand them. They know what bin to put them in at the store."

"You don't think about stuff like that when you're writing songs," Rennie adds. "Maybe you read about it in a review. "Oh honey, it says we're alt.-country. I guess that's what we are then'."

"Alternative country is probably the best label, I would think, for us," says Brett.

You suspect there will always be an experimental bone in The Handsome Family's body although don't expect them to do any strict, straight forward rock music quite yet. "I don't have much desire to rock anymore," admits Rennie. "Ever since 'Lust for Life' was used for that cruise commercial, I've got no interest in rock anymore."

"I never make those kinds of predictions," states Brett. "I don't have an agenda when it comes to things. But yeah, I could see making an all-electronic record. Or making an all acoustic record. Just like a string band or bluegrass record of original songs."

It's worth remembering that Brett and Rennie are, in fact, a real life family. And a handsome one at that, too. Does being married make it harder or easier to create music together? "I think it makes the music easier," Brett answers. "It's nice to write with the person you've chosen to spend your life with. It's nice that when you go on the road, you don't have to leave that person behind for months and months at a time, too."

But what if they're having a lover's quarrel right before hitting the stage together? Don't they then have to pretend to be all love-y dove-y?

"We never pretend," Brett states flatly. "We fight it out. A lot of times it's just nonsense. A lot of times we have these fake fights on stage. There are times that we're definitely hitting at each other on stage. But that's cool. It doesn't matter. It's fun. It's better that way."

"I like people just to see us for who we are," Rennie adds. "I don't want to act differently on the stage than I do off the stage. If we're arguing backstage, we'll continue arguing onstage."

It's not always smooth sailing, but if Rennie and Brett got along perfectly, they wouldn't really be a believable family. After all, there's no such thing as a non-dysfunctional family. But this musical family plays together and stays together. They also exhibit the kinds of family values any political persuasion can get behind - even if they do tell a lot of ghost stories.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •