In 1998, Brett and Rennie Sparks, the husband-and-wife duo known as The Handsome Family, released their third album, Through the Trees. The American musical landscape at the time was littered with the wreckage of grunge, an ascendant R&B scene, and generic Nashville music-type product. Through the Trees sounded like none of that.
Rennie played the autoharp and wrote lyrics with literary depth. She was both evocative and down to earth, often in neighboring lines. Brett sang the words in a sonorous baritone, while seemingly attempting to do as little as possible on guitar. To get a sense of exactly how weird they are, imagine 1998's bestselling country act, Shania Twain, writing a chorus like: "This is why people OD on pills/Or jump from the Golden Gate Bridge/Anything to feel weightless again."
Nevertheless, the album, recorded with the assistance of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, earned The Handsome Family a fierce cult following. Twenty years, tens of thousands of miles, and 10 albums later, the duo is more popular than ever. They got a big boost in 2014 when the HBO Southern Gothic series True Detective used "Far From Any Road" from their album Singing Bones as the main title theme.
Now the duo is leaving behind their Albuquerque, New Mexico, home for a few months to take Through the Trees out for a spin on its 20th anniversary. They'll play the Hi-Tone on Sunday, July 22nd, two decades after they came through town supporting the album the first time around.
Through the Trees was written at a particularly difficult time in the Sparks' life. After years on the road, Brett was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had to be hospitalized. Did death-obsessed songs like "The Giant of Illinois" ("died from a blister on his toe/after walking all day/through the first winter snow"), and "My Ghost," about being "strapped to this fucking twin bed," still feel relevant now that the writers are in a less fraught frame of mind?
"We were happy to realize that we still do feel really connected to these songs," he says. "It was an important time in our lives as people and as artists. We had to figure out how to make art while psychically unraveling. Not easy."
Through the Trees is part of the first wave of what came to be called "Americana," a loose genre seemingly defined by artists who self-consciously embraced pre-rock roots music. Audiences now have more context for the band's idiosyncrasies that might have seemed off-putting and old fashioned in the 1990s.
"We still struggle in the U.S.A.," Sparks says. "People who like country sometimes aren't fans of Lovecraftian comedy. In Europe, they find us far more American than here. That's for sure. I feel like dark, vaguely supernatural stories that take place in modern urban worlds — this is a part of Americana that is underserved in our present ocean of Americana bands. We can provide this service."
The Handsome Family's last album, 2016's Unseen, expanded their sonic palette, as in the tinkling coins that open the ballad of casino salvation, "The Silver Light," while "Green Willow Valley" brings in a Booker T.-esque organ for some sweet melody duty. "Every record we finish is a minor miracle," they say. "Unseen was hard. They've all been hard, and yet we feel compelled to write and record. I wanted the songs to be stories, and I wanted the stories to concern disappearing. And so we started working."
Even after more than two decades on the road and in the studio, the songwriting that lies at the heart of The Handsome Family is as sharp as ever. As they leave the New Mexico desert behind on this tour, they're taking a break from working on their 11th album. What is the secret to writing such consistently great songs? "Try a lot. And try to enjoy trying. Fail a lot and try to enjoy failing. It doesn't get easier."