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The Handsome Family

Husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family have been labeled both alt-country and traditionalist, but truthfully their often dark music lies in a unique space somewhere in between, blending the sounds of traditional country and bluegrass (and, especially, murder ballads) into a more modern scenery. Vocalist and composer Brett Sparks hails from Texas, where he studied music and briefly worked around the oil rigs. By the mid-'90s, he resided in Chicago with his wife Rennie Sparks, a fiction writer originally from Long Island. Brett persuaded Rennie to write lyrics for him, leading to the unusual and striking form of the Handsome Family's songs -- evocative scenes and brief tales (of both the daydream and ghost-story varieties) in lieu of the standard verse-chorus-verse structure.

The Handsome Family's debut album, entitled Odessa, was released in January 1995 on the independent label Carrot Top. This first home recording (all of the Handsome Family's albums are recorded in their living room) had slight punk shadings not heard on their subsequent albums. Odessa unfortunately made few waves except for some radio stations' ban on the second song, "Arlene," which is about a woman who gets bludgeoned to death. The follow-up came in May of the following year, and the Handsome Family hit the road in support of their new release, Milk and Scissors, first touring the U.S. with Wilco, then heading on to Europe for shows in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. With Milk and Scissors, the duo had traded in their previous rock edges for more traditional country sounds. The resulting album won praise from the critics, got named in the Top Ten of 1996 by alt-country/Americana magazine No Depression, and was featured on John Peel's BBC show.

This was not, however, an easy period for the Handsome Family. Brett suffered an emotional breakdown during this time, which resulted in his hospitalization and diagnosis as manic-depressive. Through the Trees (Carrot Top, January 1998), the Handsome Family's third album, was written and recorded in the aftermath of these troubles. The raw, emotional quality of lyrics that deal with the darkness of everyday tragedy is delivered in Brett's deadpan baritone, often met by more traditional country sounds. With this recording, the Handsome Family came into their own sound and received widespread attention as a result. Through the Trees was named the best local release and in the Top Ten of 1998 by major Chicago papers, but the attention went far beyond the local press; the album received praise from major magazines, both online and in print. Through the Trees was featured on NPR and even named the Best New Country Album of the Year by England's Uncut magazine, despite the album's overall untraditional sound.

This was the Handsome Family's breakthrough album, which continued to increase in popularity over the next several years, allowing Brett and Rennie Sparks to quit their day jobs and focus on music full-time. Following the album's release, the duo began touring extensively, performing regularly in Europe and touring the U.S. twice -- once with the Mekons. On the wave of this success, two years later came the somewhat lighter and more natural sounds of In the Air (Carrot Top, 2000), with guest appearances by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and violinist Andrew Bird, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The Handsome Family supported the release of their fourth album with a monthlong European tour followed by a tour along the West Coast of the U.S. A document of their sound at this time can be found on their 2002 release Live at Schuba's Tavern, which was recorded at a December 2000 show in Chicago.

The duo released Singing Bones in 2003, followed by Last Days of Wonder in 2006 and the uncharacteristically upbeat Honey Moon in 2009. The 2013 release Wilderness found the Handsome Family training their focus on the natural world. In 2014, the Handsome Family experienced an unexpected windfall when the song "Far Away from Any Road," from Singing Bones, was selected as the theme music for the acclaimed HBO drama series True Detective, giving the group a larger audience than they had ever experienced before. (The song was subsequently featured on an episode of The Simpsons, and Guns N' Roses used it as the overture for a 2014 concert tour, which is the first thing the two groups have ever had in common.) In 2016, the Handsome Family released their 11th studio album, Unseen, through their own Milk & Scissors label. ~ Joslyn Layne
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: Honey Moon

1. Linger, Let Me Linger

2. Little Sparrows

3. My Friend

4. When You Whispered

5. Loneliness Of Magnets

6. June Bugs

7. Thousand Diamond Rings

8. Love Is Like

9. Petrified Forest

10. Wild Wood

11. Darling, My Darling

12. Winding Corn Maze

x

Track List: Last Days Of Wonder

1. Your Great Journey

2. Tesla's Hotel Room

3. These Golden Jewels

4. After We Shot The Grizzly

5. Flapping Your Broken Wings

6. Beautiful William

7. All The Time In Airports

8. White Lights

9. Bowling Alley Bar

10. Hunter Green

11. Our Blue Sky

12. Somewhere Else To Be

x

Track List: Singing Bones

1. The Forgotten Lake

2. Gail With The Golden Hair

3. 24-Hour Store

4. The Bottomless Hole

5. Far From Any Road

6. If The World Should End In Fire

7. A Shadow Underneath

8. Dry Bones

9. Fallen Peaches

10. Whitehaven

11. Sleepy

12. The Song Of A Hundred Toads

13. If The World Should End In Ice

x

Track List: Twilight

1. The Snow White Diner

2. Passenger Pigeons

3. A Dark Eye

4. There Is A Sound

5. All The TVs In Town

6. Gravity

7. Cold, Cold, Cold

8. No One Fell Asleep Alone

9. I Know You Are There

10. Birds You Cannot See

11. The White Dog

12. So Long

13. Peace In The Valley Once Again

x

Track List: In The Air

1. Don't Be Scared

2. The Sad Milkman

3. In The Air

4. A Beautiful Thing

5. So Much Wine

6. Up Falling Rock Hill

7. Poor, Poor Lenore

8. When That Helicopter Comes

9. Grandmother Waits For You

10. Lie Down

11. My Beautiful Bride

x

Track List: Through The Trees

1. Weightless Again

2. My Sister's Tiny Hands

3. Stalled

4. Where The Trees Lean

5. Cathedrals

6. Down In The Ground

7. The Giant Of Illinois

8. Down In The Valley Of Hollow Logs

9. I Fell

10. The Woman Downstairs

11. Last Night I Went Out Walking

12. Bury Me Here

13. My Ghost

x

Track List: Milk And Scissors

1. Lake Geneva

2. Winnebago Skeletons

3. Drunk By Noon

4. The House Carpenter

5. The Dutch Boy

6. The King Who Wouldn't Smile

7. Emily Shore 1819-1839

8. 3-Legged Dog

9. #1 Country Song

10. Amelia Earhart vs. The Dancing Bear

11. Tin Foil

12. Puddin' Fingers

x

Track List: Odessa

1. Here's Hopin'

2. Arlene

3. Pony

4. One Way Up

5. Water Into Wine

6. Giant Ant

7. Everything That Rises Must Converge

8. Gorilla

9. The Last

10. Claire Said

11. Moving Furniture Around

12. Big Bad Wolf

13. She Awoke With A Jerk

14. Happy Harvest

x

Track List: In The Forest Of Missing Planes

1. All The Time In Airports

2. The Blizzard

3. Knoxville Girl

Comments

Report as inappropriate
bookseller28
One of my most favorite songs from one of my most favorite bands. Absolutely love the harmony between the the two voices capped with Brett's booming voice when he breaks in with High above.... Simple, effective and sends shivers! Not sure if you remember me Brett, but I played bass in the band Elysium many, many years ago when you guys were just starting out and we joined you on stage at the Beat Kitchen. Good memories!
Report as inappropriate
This bio needs to be updated. No mention of True Detective even.
Report as inappropriate
I still and always will love hearing this song...
Report as inappropriate
they have a dark beautiful acoustic sound that i could listen to all the time
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john.r.jungb l u t
The Handsome Family is kind of like when your kid asks you for McDonald's and you take them to Smashburger or In & Out Burger instead.

You're geting what you expect, but much more fresh and interesting than what you asked for...
Report as inappropriate
As an old Hank Williams got to love the Handsome Family. No big orchestra--j u s t good guitar, banjo, fiddle, steel guitar. Great stuff.
Report as inappropriate
bubbalove220 0 3
it kinds scary
Report as inappropriate
Agree, jmeyer22!
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jmeyer22
True Detective is worth a 2nd run through – even if it's just for the opening credits. Never gets old.
Report as inappropriate
dian.adison2
Very fascinated by TRUE DETECTIVE - love the theme song
Report as inappropriate
Anyone else watch True Detective?
Report as inappropriate
puabster
agree with kujammer love this group
Report as inappropriate
amazin' originality
Report as inappropriate
Reminds me of jake riggs of the band huge sally
Report as inappropriate
One of my favorites. Maybe my #1 favorite.
Report as inappropriate
"Moving Furniture Around" on the Odessa CD is awesome. This is so strange it is good. I agree on the WTF in a good way. :-)
Report as inappropriate
Love this group
Report as inappropriate
shaffnerfm
WTF in a good way!
Report as inappropriate
pstickels
pretty good

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