Tune In: The Handsome Family

article image

The strange and beautiful music of The Handsome Family provides the perfect soundtrack for fall.

It’s officially fall here in Kansas. The air is crisper, the leaves are brilliant shades of red and yellow, and the days are noticeably shorter. It’s my favorite time of year, not just because of the season, but because of the music that finds its way into my daily rotation as I hunker down and get ready for winter.

Lately, I’ve been listening to The Handsome Family, a husband and wife duo from New Mexico that carries on the long tradition of storytelling characteristic of old-time American folk music. I first came across Brett and Rennie Sparks’ strange and beautiful music in the summer of 2006 while in Asheville, North Carolina. My wife and I were road tripping, and the duo’s 10th release, The Last Days of Wonder, was exactly what we needed for our winding drive through the Appalachians. When we got back home, I immersed myself in their back catalog and haven’t been the same since.

It’s difficult to categorize their darker take on Americana, but that’s part of its charm. There are obvious elements of classic country and old-time American folk music in the arrangements, but the duo will often juxtapose that roots-based sound with something jazz infused, Tin Pan Alley tinged, or even psychedelically inspired. No matter what the musical style is, though, the lyrics and Brett’s baritone are what makes their wide-ranging tunes so timeless and remarkably poignant. From heartbreaking songs about Robert Ludlow (once the world’s tallest man) and Nikola Tesla’s last days to quirky commentaries on modern life set in convenience stores, bowling alley bars, and abandoned shopping malls, each song is a self-contained story with something waiting to be discovered, whether it be a memorable tune or a philosophical statement about life and death. Rennie has also written beautiful lyrics across their discography about humanity’s relationship to nature, and the duo recently devoted an entire album to the subject with their latest release, Wilderness

Their music is especially meaningful to me because it directly inspired my first serious attempts at songwriting. While I had been writing songs before discovering The Handsome Family, it wasn’t until I heard Rennie’s lyrics and Brett’s voice that I knew what I wanted my music to sound like. Their influence is evident on my first album of dark folk music, Built with Bones, which I self-released in 2007:

So now, as I bundle up with sweaters and start prepping the fireplace for the chilly days ahead, it’s been a pleasure reimmersing myself in the music of The Handsome Family. Their music is not only the perfect soundtrack to a season marked by the end of things, but a reminder to me that inspiration is all around us, waiting to be discovered.

Christian Williams is the editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com, and follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.