The Handsome Family is an alternative country and americana band, formed in Chicago, Illinois, and currently based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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The band was formed in 1993 by husband-and-wife duo Brett Sparks (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Rennie Sparks (bass, banjo, vocals), along with drummer Mike Werner. The band would later revolve around Rennie, who writes the lyrics, and Brett, who writes the music. Guest musicians complete the band line-up for recordings and live work.
Regarding the band name, Brett said in an interview: "It's just kind of a stupid name. We used to have this really obnoxious drummer, and he used to call me 'Handsome', that was his nickname for me, I think for sarcastic reasons... And he wanted to call it the Handsome Family...and we thought it was funny, too. We thought it was a good name."
Brett is originally from Odessa, Texas and Rennie from Long Island. The band toured extensively throughout both America and Europe in support of early releases Odessa (1994) and Milk and Scissors (1996). During that time, Brett suffered an emotional breakdown, resulting in his hospitalization and diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Their third full-length album, Through the Trees, was written in the aftermath of these events, and included a song inspired by Brett's experiences in the psychiatric unit. The album was recorded in 1998, using Jeff Tweedy's mobile studio, and brought the band to a wider audience. It was named the "Best New Country Album of the Year" by UNCUT.
A growing following and raised profile allowed Brett and Rennie to give up their day jobs and work on the band full-time. They toured America and Europe again in support of the 2000 album In the Air. In 2001, they moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and released Twilight, with Allmusic opining that the album leads "the listener down a lovely yet dark trail few would dare tread twice". In 2002, they released a live album, Live at Schuba's Tavern, a recording from the In the Air tour from Chicago in December 2000. They have subsequently released the albums Singing Bones (2003), and Last Days of Wonder (2006) as well as the collections Smothered and Covered (2003) and Scattered (2010).
The band's latest studio album, Honey Moon, was released in April 2009. A new album, Wilderness, was released in May 2013.
The Handsome Family's style is a blend of traditional country, bluegrass, and murder ballads. Early recordings have rock elements, but these were less evident from 1996's Milk and Scissors onwards.
Rennie's lyrics have a strong storytelling component, drawing on themes from Gothic fiction, as well as American folk music, and often involving macabre subjects as murders, suicides and ghosts. Some songs are also based on actual historical figures or events, including the lives and deaths of Amelia Earhart ("Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear", on Milk and Scissors), Emily Shore ("Emily Shore 1819-1839", on Milk and Scissors), Robert Wadlow ("The Giant of Illinois", on Through the Trees), Natalie Wood ("Natalie Wood", an outtake from Twilight, which appears on Smothered and Covered), and Nikola Tesla ("Tesla's Hotel Room", on Last Days of Wonder).