If you watched the first season HBO’s True Detective, you’re familiar with The Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road”—it’s the title-sequence song.
That fact marks a career highlight for Chicago husband-and-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks, who have been performing as The Handsome Family for 23 years, recording 10 albums in the process. They’ll be performing at Pappy and Harriet’s on Saturday, Dec. 10.
During a recent phone interview, Rennie Sparks credited the work of Uncle Tupelo for paving their way in the Americana-music world.
“Just about every band there at the time was some kind of version of Americana,” Sparks said. “Chicago is kind of a heartland of music. I think Uncle Tupelo set a template that was good for most of the bands for the next 20 years. … We were always inspired by older things than that—mostly early 20th-century recordings and folk music. Luckily, most American music is inspired by that, so no one really noticed for a while.”
Rennie Sparks said that being in a band with her husband has thankfully not put a strain on their marriage.
“I think it would be harder to be doing this with someone I wasn’t married to,” Sparks said. “I feel much worse for (musicians who) are in bands with their friends and leave their loved ones behind. If I’m going to have to do this—and music careers these days require a lot of traveling—why not travel with someone you love? It makes it easier.”
The Handsome Family’s latest album, Unseen, was released back in September. Sparks said that with every album, it feels like the songwriting process becomes harder.
“The first record is always things you want to say that you’ve never said before,” she said. “Now it feels like you’re digging deep down into a well that’s pretty used up to begin with. It doesn’t get easier, but it does feel like it becomes more meaningful with each song that you write. It’s a pretty strange gift.”
A few weeks before the interview, Carrot Top Records, the record label The Handsome Family had been with since the beginning, closed due to the turbulence in the music industry. Sparks said that she and her husband financed most of the new record.
“There were never really any resources to begin with,” she said about Carrot Top. “We’ve always recorded at home with our own money, and our label has always been there to help us pay for public relations and manufacturing. But now, Carrot Top Records is gone. This is the first record we’ve done on our own, and we’ve had to pay for everything. But we’ve never had people telling us what to do, which is nice. It makes you feel in control of your musical output.”
Sparks said there’s a certain type of Americana music that she and Brett love.
“I wouldn’t say that I love Americana music, but I love songs, and I love stories,” she said. “If you look in the history of songs and the history of story-based songs, there’s going to be love for Americana. What we really like is what I call pre-Christian magic spells, and old songs sung for important reasons, like singing a song to make spring come back, or songs to make the dark not kill us. Those are the songs I think are important.”
The Handsome Family has toured more in recent years—and touring has become the only source of music income.
“It’s necessary now,” she said. “Before, we did it because it was a nice way to meet fans, and it wasn’t crucial. We had some record sales back then. Now the only way we survive is playing and performing. I’m glad the Internet hasn’t completely replaced the need for live music. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have any source of income.”
Sparks said that “Far From Any Road” being used as the theme for the acclaimed first season of True Detective has been the most fascinating moment of the group’s career.
“It’s certainly been interesting, getting our song from 15 years ago about living in the desert taken out of context and becoming the theme of a show about Louisiana cops,” she said. “That’s been quite interesting. It’s been a surreal feeling to hear that little static beginning of HBO shows and then (seeing) the HBO logo, then hearing your song. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
If you’ve seen the band in the past, you probably saw just Brett, Rennie and a drum machine. However, Rennie Sparks said they now have two other members currently touring.
“We have a really great band now,” she said. “Before, we were just a duo with a drum machine, and now we’re lucky enough to have found a great percussionist to play with us. We also have a really great multi-instrumentalist playing with us now.”
The Handsome Family will perform at 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 10, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit pappyandharriets.com.