Handsome Family – Tragic songs of life
Originally, Brett envisioned Singing Bones as more of a band-oriented rock ‘n’ roll record. Going into writing, he had been listening to Lucinda Williams’ Essence, Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft, and The Band. All the drums on the new album are live, for the first time since 1996’s Milk And Scissors. But as with most Handsome Family albums, Brett found it tough to stick to the original, overarching plan, and the music he concocted ultimately didn’t call for as much electric guitar as he’d anticipated.
What was different was number of outside participants. Brett recruited old friends from the region to play mandolin, dobro, trumpet and bowed bass. With the exception of Brett’s brother Darrell, guests were a rarity on Handsome Family records made in the Windy City (though Jeff Tweedy and Andrew Bird can be found listed in the small print on a couple of them).
“In Chicago, unless I really trusted or knew somebody, and it was a really good friend, I was always very reticent to get people to play with us,” Brett says. He was also reluctant to invite others into the Handsome Family fold, “because when I did, people would be like, ‘Am I in the band now?’ That was very common.”
Brett and Rennie met in 1987, at New York’s Stony Brook College. Rennie, who grew up on Long Island, was a senior; Brett was in his first year of graduate school, studying music history. The night they met, Brett was waiting for another girl. “She never got the chance,” chuckles Rennie. The two clicked immediately. They married a year later.
“It all seemed so meant-to-be,” she says, looking fondly at her husband of fifteen years. “You seemed so familiar, from the first second I met you. I was like, ‘There you are. I’ve been looking for you.'” On their first date, Rennie invited him out to dinner. There was a seafood place she was dying to check out. When they pulled up, she realized it was just a carpet store with a nautical name. “From a certain angle, it looked like a really nice seafood joint,” she insists.
Before they hooked up, Rennie had never listened to country music. Her tastes skewed exclusively toward punk rock, she says. “The noisier and angrier, the better. I was an angry kid, and wanted to break things. Anything you could kick a hole in the wall to was good music.”
The path she would follow, however, was not without precedent. “My parents grew up in New York and went to NYU in the ’50s — where they claim they never saw a beatnik — and had a lot of folk records,” she explains. When she was little, they would play Kingston Trio and Burl Ives platters to lull her to sleep. “Even as a kid, I listened to the lyrics of every song,” she says. In retrospect, she notes, playing “Tom Dooley” repeatedly to an impressionable tot was bound to shape her psyche. On some deep, dark level, her aesthetic was already seeded.
Brett, on the other hand, had spent his youth devouring classical music exclusively. Then, in the late ’70s, he started snapping up early releases by Elvis Costello, Devo, and Talking Heads. “There was something in that music that was just as important, and intrinsically artistic, as classical music,” he says. Later he started investigating Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, though he was loath to own up to the latter.
“He was a dirty hippie,” jokes Brett. “When you live in New Mexico, hippies are easy to hate. I used to wear skinny ties and a suit, every day, just to divorce myself, as far as possible, from the hippie subculture.” When he met Rennie, he was playing in a rockabilly band. At parties, he’d slap Carl Perkins or Charlie Feathers on the stereo. “It was my personal vocation to subject people on Long Island to country music.”
But it wasn’t until the two relocated to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Rennie studied creative writing (she has self-published a collection of short stories, Evil), that they began to delve deeper into the timeworn traditions of Appalachian folk and classic Nashville from whence they forged their own sound. “There weren’t many record stores,” says Brett. “So I went to the library, checked out all the country records they had, took them home, and taped them.” Then he moved on to the Folk section, where they discovered Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music. They duped that in its entirety, and photocopied the booklet as well.
On weekends, they’d go to flea markets in neighboring Ypsilanti. “They called it Ypsitucky,” remembers Rennie, because the town was full of blue-collar southerners who had migrated north to work in the auto factories. There would be hardcore pickers, playing traditional mountain music, at the flea markets.
“We went up to this old guy in one booth,” Rennie recalls, “and asked, ‘What should we listen to?'” He sold them a copy of the Louvin Brothers’ 1956 masterpiece Tragic Songs Of Life. “We got it home, and it changed everything.” Growing up disgruntled and depressed in the suburbs, Rennie had thought only furious, brutal music could speak to her. “But then you hear music like the Louvin Brothers, that’s so emotionally candid, so comforting and nourishing, and you never want to listen to the Misfits again.”
They couldn’t stay in Michigan, though. “We were the bad element in Ann Arbor,” jokes Rennie. In 1989, after she finished school, they made a road trip to Chicago. “We stayed at this hotel that was nine dollars a night, cockroaches everywhere. We sat on the bed, drinking whiskey with the light on because every time we’d turn it off the roaches came out. But we were young, and thought, ‘This is cool!’ We went outside, and there was this old lady, screaming, ‘You fuckin’ jag-offs!,’ and chasing us down the street. And, somehow, it was all so charming.” They decided to stay.