The Handsome Family
|Origin||Chicago, Illinois, US|
|Genres||Alternative country, americana, indie folk|
|Labels||Loose, Carrot Top Records, Scout Releases|
|Past members||Mike Werner|
The Handsome Family is an alternative country and Americana duo consisting of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks formed in Chicago, Illinois, and as of 2021 based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They are perhaps best known for their song "Far from Any Road" from the album Singing Bones, which was used as the main title theme for the first season of the 2014 crime drama True Detective. The band's 10th album, Unseen, was released on September 16, 2016, the first new release on the band's own label Milk & Scissors Music and through long-time label Loose in Europe.
Husband-and-wife duo Brett Sparks (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Rennie Sparks (bass, banjo, vocals) formed the band in 1993, along with drummer Mike Werner. The band would later revolve around Rennie, who writes the lyrics, and Brett, who writes the music. Guest musicians complete the band line-up for recordings and live work.
Regarding the band name, Brett said in an interview: "It's just kind of a stupid name. We used to have this really obnoxious drummer, and he used to call me 'Handsome', that was his nickname for me, I think for sarcastic reasons... And he wanted to call it the Handsome Family... and we thought it was funny, too. We thought it was a good name."
Brett is originally from Odessa, Texas and Rennie from Long Island. The band toured extensively throughout both America and Europe in support of early releases Odessa (1994) and Milk and Scissors (1996). During that time, Brett suffered an emotional breakdown, resulting in his hospitalization and diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
They wrote their third full-length album, Through the Trees, in the aftermath of these events, and included a song inspired by Brett's experiences in the psychiatric unit. They recorded the album in 1998, using Jeff Tweedy's mobile studio, and brought the band to a wider audience. UNCUT named it the "Best New Country Album of the Year".
A growing following and raised profile allowed Brett and Rennie to give up their day jobs and work on the band full-time. They toured America and Europe again in support of the 2000 album In the Air. That year, Rennie's book of short stories, Evil, was released by Chicago publisher Black Hole Press. In 2001, they moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and released Twilight, with Allmusic opining that the album leads "the listener down a lovely yet dark trail few would dare tread twice". In 2002, they released a live album, Live at Schuba's Tavern, a recording from the In the Air tour from Chicago in December 2000.
The duo appeared in the 2003 documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, as well as the soundtrack album released two years later.
They have subsequently released the albums Singing Bones (2003), Last Days of Wonder (2006), Honey Moon (2009), and Wilderness (2013) as well as the collections Smothered and Covered (2003) and Scattered (2010). Their latest album, Unseen was released in September 2016.
The track "Far from Any Road," from the album Singing Bones, was used as the main title theme song for HBO's 2014 crime drama True Detective by the show's music director, T Bone Burnett. The Sydney Morning Herald included season one's opening sequence in their list of the "Ten of the Best" title sequences on television.
Their songs have been covered repeatedly by musician Andrew Bird, including a full-length album of covers released in 2014, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
The Handsome Family's style is a blend of traditional country, bluegrass, and murder ballads. Early recordings have rock elements, but these were less evident from 1996's Milk and Scissors onwards. The duo's penchant for a tongue-in-cheek, macabre approach to alt-country has been noted by many critics; Andy Fyfe of Mojo called them "Americana's ghostly Sonny & Cher." A.V. Club reviewer Christopher Bahn described their music as "rootsy, literary country-rock that’s a little like a collaboration between Hank Williams and Edgar Allan Poe."
Rennie's lyrics have a strong storytelling component, drawing on themes from Gothic fiction, as well as American folk music, and often involving macabre subjects as murders, suicides and ghosts. Some songs are also based on actual historical figures or events, including the lives and deaths of Amelia Earhart ("Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear", on Milk and Scissors), Emily Shore ("Emily Shore 1819–1839", on Milk and Scissors), Robert Wadlow ("The Giant of Illinois", on Through the Trees), Natalie Wood ("Natalie Wood", an outtake from Twilight, which appears on Smothered and Covered), and Nikola Tesla ("Tesla's Hotel Room", on Last Days of Wonder). The title of Last Days of Wonder is a reference to Puritan scientist and witch-hunter Cotton Mather's 1693 book Wonders of the Invisible World, which Rennie found intriguing because of what she called its "madness brimming under the surface of things."