The Handsome Family is a perfectly postmodern family band.
Unlike the ones that litter the bluegrass and Southern gospel scenes, they consist only of a married couple—no children, cousins, or siblings. Their name isn’t Handsome either, it’s Sparks, and truth be told they are pretty ordinary looking. In fact the Handsome Family is what you’d get if you could cross the old-time Appalachian musical Carter Family with the pointed irony of Flannery O’Connor.
Their latest album, Honey Moon, was written and recorded to celebrate Brett and Rennie Sparks’ 20th wedding anniversary. The songs are about love, but like most of the Handsome Family’s work, they are still mostly down tempo, with the messages carried by jarring lyrical images of “Little Sparrows” singing to cars on the overpass, the tossing of dandelion seeds in the wind, or a walk through a dry and stony “Petrified Forest.”
On “My Darling, My Darling,” Brett Sparks repeatedly sings, “I’ll give you everything,” while in the distance someone whistles behind a mournful single-note organ line. All this comes draped in an eerie, spectral sound, heavy on minor chords, and a moaning dobro or pedal steel.
Rennie Sparks writes the lyrics that earn the band that O’Connor comparison, while her husband mostly sings them. And Rennie Sparks is a real writer. She’s published a collection of short stories (called Evil, Black Hole Press), and she contributed a learned post-feminist dissection of the old murder ballad “Pretty Polly” for The Rose and the Briar (W.W. Norton), an anthology of essays edited by Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz.
But, in the end, the Handsome Family songs don’t come off as cerebral or ironic. In their hands the folk tradition becomes what it always was, a way to get at the timeless and inexpressible as it manifests itself in the everyday.