While the Handsome Family’s music has become quite serious — some might say distinctly morbid — their live performances remain whacked out, unpredictable, and often hilarious, sparked by bouts of verbal sparring along with Rennie’s trademark spouting-off segues. At the CD release gig for the new album, Rennie recounted the entire plot of an episode of the new Little House On The Prairie. At a free performance in a bookstore cafe, an eccentric man carrying sacks of newspapers sauntered in off the street and loudly asked, “Where’s the $100 seats?” Rennie immediately shot back, “On my lap.” The man eventually left, but not before Rennie had reduced the offer, pleading, “How about $50? Okay, $25 and I’ll nibble on your ear.…Don’t pay any attention to me. I’m not well.”
The color of Rennie’s comments depends on the mood of the room. When the crowd is supportive, her tone is comic and self-effacing. When things get a little ugly, she becomes a potty mouth. Rennie says, “The more threatened I feel, the fouler my language becomes.”
“I have empirical evidence of that,” Brett affirms.
“The more I feel that people hate me, the more I feel like repulsing them,” she admits. This would explain some of the more scatological tales, such as the one about the baby carriage lodged in her sphincter. Depending on one’s point of view, her comments are either annoying or endearing.
Does anyone have a spare autoharp string? I’d also like a pair of pantyhose. Mine are drenched. Drenched with happiness.
The band’s shows usually feature a lot of frivolity, but the music rarely suffers from it nowadays. Just as the albums have evolved, the Handsome Family have come a long way from their early days, when performances were often intoxicated trainwrecks in which the band might wear sailor suits. Brett bemusedly recounts the band’s first gigs: “When we started out, we didn’t take ourselves seriously because we were so bad instrumentally. Rennie was just learning how to play bass, Mike was just learning how to play drums, and I had never played guitar in my life.”
There was one particularly memorable performance in which everything seemed to go haywire. Werner’s drum kit broke; Brett’s glasses fell off, and when he attempted to stomp on a distortion pedal, his foot landed squarely on the glasses, shattering them; Brett later fell off the stage; it was so hot that Rennie took off her shirt, and Brett was apparently too drunk (or too blind without his glasses) to notice.
After the show, Patrick Monaghan, head of the small indie label Carrot Top, approached the band about putting out an album. Despite the, um, ragged nature of the performance, Monaghan really liked the songs. Carrot Top has released all three Handsome Family albums domestically; the label has just signed a licensing/distribution deal with Rykodisc Europe.
Over the years, as the kitsch factor declined and the travel increased — the band has toured Europe and opened a West Coast leg for Wilco — Werner decided to leave the band. “The problem is, we started out as a joke, and then all the sudden, one day, we woke up and we were deadly serious about this. And our drummer didn’t know it. He thought we were still having a joke,” Rennie recalls with a laugh.
On the Wilco tour, general crowd reaction ranged from warm support to blatant hostility. Indeed, the Handsome Family is one of the most misunderstood bands in alternative country. The key issue for the band’s critics seems to be sincerity.
Brett thinks many indie-rock fans, upon hearing twang in a song, instantly assume the band is making fun of country music. For the Sparkses, nothing could be farther from the truth. The duo is deeply steeped in Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, and especially the Carter Family. And don’t get them started talking about Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music unless you’ve got a few hours to spare.
Then there’s that infamous plastic deer, which was purchased in a Wisconsin camping store, where it was surrounded by cases of beer. It traveled around the country and throughout central Europe on the Handsome Family’s tours, perched onstage between Brett and Rennie. At times, a microphone was pointed at its mouth. They’ve since retired the deer’s stage career, deciding it was giving too many people the wrong idea about their musical priorities.
“I just couldn’t imagine that someone would think that I was making fun of country music by having a deer onstage. That just blew my mind,” Rennie says. “That deer is like my good, good friend. I can’t bring it onstage now because I can’t bear the thought that anyone would think I was making fun of something with it.”
Nowadays, the band is receiving more critical accolades than ever, but they’re still frustrated by the misinterpretation of their work. “People kept comparing us to Southern Culture On The Skids, like we were a joke band,” Rennie laments. “God bless Southern Culture On The Skids, but I don’t feel that I have anything in common with them.…Our songs to me, right now, are so much from my fucking heart.…I’m not throwing fried chicken off the stage. I’m basically baring it all.”
I hope you pick me for softball, ’cause I really wanna be on the team. That thing that happened last year with volleyball won’t happen again. It’s the net. And, I was a little dizzy.
Through The Trees concludes with “My Ghost”, a harrowing, autobiographical account of Brett’s stay in a mental institution. At a recent show, he introduced it with the subtlety of a firecracker: “This is a song about being in the nuthouse.” As Rennie provides plaintive accompaniment on autoharp, Brett sings: “Here in the bipolar ward if you shower you get a gold star/But I’m not going far till the Haldol kicks in/Until then, until then, I’m strapped to this fucking twin bed/And I won’t get any cookies or tea/Till I stop quoting Nietzsche and brush my teeth and comb my hair.”
The Handsome Family embody the notion that sometimes ya gotta laugh to keep from splitting your head open with a rusty Randall knife. And a crucial way to combat the demons is through creativity. Both Brett and Rennie have suffered from chemical imbalances, but they’ve survived and are making the best music of their lives.
At the CD release show, there was a moment in which both musicians seemed completely at peace, enraptured by the music, almost sanctified. Brett sat on a chair, strumming his guitar, eyes closed. Rennie stood a few feet away, gently tapping her bass, eyes closed. On his left hand, and on her left hand, a gold band reflected the spotlight.
Bobby Reed is a Chicago-based writer who worships the Carter Family and once met Robert Plant at a James Brown show.