Songs That Fall from the Sky
I. TWELVE SONGS ABOUT SOMEONE ELSE'S DOG
In the first line of "After We Shot the Grizzly," the fourth song on the Handsome Family's new Last Days of Wonder, a hunting party from long ago, pioneer days, goes badly awry. In the second line, a plane crashes. Then, before the song even catches its breath, the two scenes fuse and a single survivor—of which calamity, there's no telling—starts relating the story, which is narrated in the blackly stoic, just-the-facts voice of 19th-century frontier diaries and goes on to recount progressively more deadly mishaps with the verve of top-flight pulp adventure writers from the authors of the New Testament on down. First the survivors kill and eat some horses. They fall ill with fevers. When all the easy food is gone, a few sneak away and build a raft from the skin and bones of their dead confreres. One by one they die at sea ("The captain jumped into the storm/Then we were but four," singer Brett Sparks reports in a voice grave and droll) until only the guy telling the story is left, singing to his Mary back home that he can feel her presence in the shark-filled waves.
The song is clever, pretty, weird, touching, and funny all at once. It started as sort of a private joke. Brett and Rennie Sparks both wanted to write their own version of a Jim Reeves song they particularly loved, "The Blizzard." In it, a man and his mule trudge over six miles in a blizzard, at night, so that he can get home to his beloved Mary Anne. A hundred yards from the front door, the mule can't take another step, so the man stands out there with the animal and freezes to death by morning, as a Nashville chorus repeatedly laments, "He was just a hundred yards from Mary Anne."
It's tough to overstate how strongly Brett and Rennie feel about Jim Reeves. He is the only human being expressly named in the list of "Influences" at their Myspace page. (The others: "noises in basements, strangers at crossroads, abandoned graveyards, stray dogs, hissing cats, old men in windbreakers, old ladies in polyester turbans, the clenched fists of small children.") The affinity is easy enough to understand. Reeves, who died in a plane crash in 1964, was one of the most anomalous country music stars of his day, a rich baritone singer of careful, precise phrasing and diction. Brett has a similar sort of baritone voice, and similar impulses as a craftsman. Then, too, Reeves's records could be a little weird themselves: There was a gulf between his vocal approach and use of strings, on one hand, and the traditional-sounding country story songs he often liked to sing. The contrast made certain of his performances sound very strange. If David Lynch had not had a Roy Orbison record to score the roadside beating scene in Blue Velvet, he might have done well enough using a Jim Reeves record.
"The Blizzard" was "a big inspiration" for the Handsome Family song, as Rennie puts it with a satisfied chuckle. "Structurally, anyway, but everything goes wrong in my head."
She's talking about the lyrics, and what happens to the arc of a story when she takes it in hand. Brett, on occasion, has been known to make deprecating jokes about the elegant, elliptical lines that his wife of nearly 20 years is prone to writing. He hates trying to talk about the words. "Everybody always has an opinion about Rennie's songs," he groans early on in our first interview. "What I like about Rennie's lyrics is you don't really know what they're about. I've been singing them for years, and I have no idea what they're about." It's a good line. Also patently false: Very often, it's what Brett does musically that gives shape and sense to Rennie's words.
During their 12 years as a working band, the Handsome Family have released eight albums that commingle moments of mystery, wonder, dread, and mayhem. And for the past 10 of those years, as a cult audience has grown up around them in America and Europe, fans and critics have applied labels: Gothic. Americana. Folk. Traditional. Country. Alt.country.
The labels invariably fail to stick. If you put the Sparkses' collected works on shuffle mix, one song is liable to be a melodic and lyrical throwback to 400-year-old Scots-Irish murder ballads; the next is likely as not to be built around an electrified country guitar sound resurrected from a 1965 Merle Haggard record; and the one after that a paean to dead pets or to the ghosts that fly 'round 24-hour convenience stores under buzzing fluorescent lights in dead of night. The Handsome Family don't sound remotely like anyone else—at least anyone who could possibly still be alive. Their records have the odd capacity, after only a few listens, to begin sounding like something that isn't new at all, something you must have heard before because it's been around forever. Hasn't it?
It's hard to say where a song comes from, Rennie reckons, or why you wrote it, or how it manages to do what it does. "I can't tell you what it feels like to listen to our records," she demurs, "but I know with other traditional songs, like a murder ballad, I find those songs really comforting. At first I was surprised to feel that way listening to those kinds of songs, but I think they remind you people have always suffered, and there have always been beautiful things in the world that have been lost. And that, even so, life can still have enormous meaning to it, and little moments can contain these enormously important things that can't really be expressed in other ways.
"There's something about songs that lets them do things we can't do for each other. It's a different language, almost a dream language. It can make you feel alive again, aware of beauty again. You feel like suddenly you're in a magical place. A song can feel like it's saving your life. It's important. Art has a purpose. Feeling alive is very hard to do sometimes. It's easy to be numb."
So you take inspiration where you find it. Before Last Days of Wonder was, per their label's press release, "a collection of love songs sung in airports, garbage dumps, drive-thru windows, and shark-infested waters," it was something else entirely. Rennie can tell you precisely where it all started. "Brett knows," she attests. "It was all supposed to be about this little dog named Ladyfingers—"
"Oh, shut up, you weirdo," Brett interjects. He laughs as if to underline the fact this is a bit they do, and she's joking.
She's not joking. "This little dog lived in a yard about six blocks from our house," she explains after Brett desists. "I don't know whose dog he was or what his name was. But every time you walked by this yard, he would jump up on the fence and beg to be petted. Just the sweetest dog. And I started petting him every time I went by. And then one time I came by and there was, like, a line of people waiting to pet this dog, because everyone loved this dog so much. He went down the line giving people a lick. I wanted to write a whole record in tribute to Ladyfingers—I named her Ladyfingers because she was very delicate."
Rennie doesn't seem to notice that she's switched the gender of the hound in midstream. "I loved this dog so much," she continues, "I wanted to give her something. So I took my glove off and gave it to her. She took it across the yard and buried it. And I tried, you know, I wanted every song to be about her and about how great she was and how happy she made us all. The moments I spent petting that dog were moments when I felt incredible joy out of nowhere. And I think I was trying to capture some of that. But it's a hard thing to capture."
"It is indeed," Brett finally allows, clearly hoping that will close the subject.
II. THE ORIGINS OF THE HANDSOME FAMILY EXPLAINED
a. Harry Smith explains
In 1952, a 29-year-old filmmaker, music archivist, and bohemian moocher named Harry Smith compiled 84 traditional music recordings on six boxed Folkways LPs collectively titled the Anthology of American Folk Music. The performers included people who would come to be known as legends of early blues and country music and people who would forever sound like fleeting, anonymous cranks with a single story to tell. All they had in common, the deacons and the drinkers alike, was that they were singing old songs (some dating at least as far back as the British Isles in the 15th century, some based on events that happened only a few years before they were recorded) and they were making folk music once removed: Unlike the field recordings that the Lomax clan and others had been harvesting for years, all 84 sides on the Anthology had been cut in the late '20s or early '30s for commercial release. Somehow all this apparently disparate music created its own sense of place—"Smithville," Greil Marcus dubbed it in his 1997 liner notes to the reissued set.
The few thousand people who bought the 1952 pressing were left to puzzle over the bizarre yet clearly painstaking way it had been assembled. The six records were paired off in sets labeled 'Ballads,' 'Social Music,' and 'Songs,' each color-coded to correspond to a primal element: red for fire, blue for air, green for water. The booklet Smith designed featured big, bold block numbers for each song and was festooned with cryptic symbols. Many years later, he explained to folk music historian John Cohen that the point of the Anthology, for him, lay less in the music than in the patterns expressed by this particular set of songs when organized in this manner. "I'd been reading Plato's Republic," he said. "He's jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government. Everybody gets out of step, you are not to arbitrarily change it because you might undermine the Empire State Building without knowing it."
"I felt social changes would result from it," he said of the finished work.
Harry Smith, in other words, was crazy as hell—deluded enough to believe a sprawling compendium of obscure 78s released on a tiny record label could effect broad alchemical changes in the ground we walk on and the air we breathe, that it could change the world.
b. Brett explains
"We met in college. On Long Island. I was waiting for a date in the student union building, a date at a dance. It sounds like a '50s song. Rennie the crazy woman came along with a bottle of some kind of alcohol. Tequila, I think. Cactus juice. And some card with a quote from Thomas Pynchon on it. I think she had a tambourine for some reason. She was probably on LSD, too.
"She sat down and we started talking and pulling on the bottle and kind of bonded. Then my date showed up, and I think the three of us went to a party. I ended up hanging out with Rennie and pretty much hanging out with her ever since. This was 1986 or '87. I was 23, I think, and Rennie would have been 20. I was in graduate school, she was an undergraduate. Rennie finished and went to the University of Michigan for an MFA program in creative writing. I followed her a year later. I worked in a music store in Ann Arbor for a year or so while she was finishing her degree. I'm just kind of a thirsty, hungry musical person. I went through a phase where I didn't listen to anything but opera for months. I went through a phase where I didn't listen to anything but art music, classical music that was composed in the 20th century, like John Cage, Stockhausen, Schoenberg.
"When I was in New York, somebody gave me a Hank Williams greatest hits tape. I was really just knocked down by its raw power. Really punk, very edgy. The lyrics were great, the music was great, and it was really simple. At the same time I was also really getting into Bob Dylan, and I saw the obvious line between the two of them. I was gravitating a little bit. I was in a rockabilly band that was basically playing all the material from Elvis's Sun Sessions. I was getting closer and closer to that kind of thing.
"When we lived in Ann Arbor, they had a great library with tons of records. I gradually checked them all out. Among those things was the Anthology of American Folk Music, the Folkways thing compiled by Harry Smith. It was another tire-iron over the head, like Hank Williams was. I started trying to write country stuff.
"It wasn't until we'd been married for about five years, and I was just working on my four-track stuff, that I asked Rennie to revise some lyrics that I'd written to a country song. They were cheesy, baby-oh-baby lyrics. She turned the song into a murder ballad. That was 'Arlene,' a song on our first record, and we still play it live."
c. Rennie explains
HOW THE WEST WAS WON
After winning the saddest girl in the world contest for six consecutive years, Rennie took to the streets, wandering from town to town wearing a tall pointed hat and warning people of her approach with a loud wooden clapper, not unlike the ones used by lepers in the middle ages. On the side of a dusty highway she laid eyes on Brett, wearing nothing but muddy overalls and a tin foil hat. He was singing Schubert at the top of his lungs and electrical sparks were flying intermittently from his fingertips.
"I'm a human battery," he explained, apologetically. "I often explode light bulbs just by looking at them."
"Do you like tequila?" Rennie asked. "I make my own using tea bags, number 2 pencils, and spider webs."
After several years of drinking, plate smashing, and falling down stairs and/or tumbling from icy sidewalks into busy streets, the two began collaborating on a letter to be sent to the President, the heads of all TV networks, and random people on the street wearing the color burnt umber.
Eventually the letter reached 80,000 words and still neither was satisfied with the results. However, when separated out into small sections, the letter revealed secret messages and suggestions of melody. Thus The Handsome Family's first songs took shape. Their first record was banned in several states, allegedly causing tumors and skin rashes upon repeated listenings.
Later albums refined The Handsome Family sound, and listeners reported brighter teeth, fresher breath, increased concentration, and a sexual energy verging on euphoria. The Handsome Family's latest record, Last Days of Wonder, has only just been released but already it's helped pull an elephant out of a muddy ditch and led hundreds of orphans across miles of wilderness to a truck stop in Denver where they were served hot chocolate and allowed to use the trucker phones. Rennie now only weeps approximately one hour per day and her tears are full of vital minerals that help plants bloom and birds to hone into magnetic fields during their migrations. Brett still sings Schubert, but he wears a shirt with his overalls and washes his face almost every day.
III. THE HANDSOME FAMILY ARE SAVED BY A WALGREEN'S CLERK
The Handsome Family's first record, Odessa, released in 1995, captures a fledgling band still in the process of deciding what it wants to be. Brett calls it "half a punk-rock record. Like a Bad Brains record. Half is a noisy record, and half is, like, not traditional country, but Nashville country circa 1963." They had moved from Ann Arbor to Chicago by then, into an apartment on "a busy, dirty street that was really noisy," in Rennie's words. Both were workplace transients, toiling at serial temp or short-term office jobs.
"I worked as a receptionist and secretary," Rennie says, "and then I did a lot of boring computer graphics, like page layouts for computerized tests for school kids. It was the same thing over and over, and it drives you crazy after a while. Because it's so quiet, and nobody does anything but goes to work and comes home, and that's that. The places I worked were all these forgotten places full of people who'd been left behind when all the good jobs were offered."
"The worst job I ever had," Brett volunteers, "was as a floater. It was a temp job. I would replace people on their breaks at DDB Needham, which is one of the biggest advertising firms in the country. I would be on the fifth floor, and somebody would come up and say, 'Okay, Brett, you're needed on the 21st floor.' I'd go up there and I would sit in somebody's chair for 15 minutes. Then somebody would come up and say, 'Now go to the 17th floor.' I floated floor to floor, just filling a seat in case somebody came to the reception desk. And if they did, you'd say, 'She'll be back in seven minutes.' It was so absurd. You realize why people drink."
"This was a job you could do drunk, easily," Rennie concurs.
The early years in Chicago were rough emotionally as well as economically. To stay sane, Brett wrote songs and played in bands, and Rennie wrote short stories and drafts of novels ("getting some things published in little literary magazines," she notes, "and coming in second in a lot of literary contests"). When Brett brought Rennie the lyrics that became "Arlene" and asked for her help, she seized on it not just as a creative problem but a chance at raising her own spirits.
"There was a Walgreen's across the street from us with a huge liquor section," she remembers. "We were over there all the time. The woman who worked at the cash register there, her name was Arlene. She had these terrible hairy, spiny warts all over her face and she had this nasty voice. She was always furious. Even when she was out in the parking lot on her cigarette break, she was smoking in this rageful way—some people can smoke, and you just know they're angry. She was always angry.
"I liked her name, and I just thought, wouldn't it be nice if we could write a song where she's beautiful and she's taken off into the woods by someone madly in love with her? Maybe she'd feel better, and I'd feel better too. I imagined myself out in the woods. Even in a forest where bad things happen, it's still a more livable place than a city street where there's garbage everywhere. It made me feel more connected to the world, even though it would have taken two hours to get from where we lived out into nature."
If the first set of songs they wrote together was a mish-mash of country and punk influences, the next batch moved more deliberately toward traditional folk and country sources. Up to a certain point, Rennie says, she thought songwriting "was for fun on the side. But what happened was, when we started really listening to this folk music with its great lyrics, we could see the potential that was there. If you're thinking about songwriting in terms of the Ramones or something, it's like, yeah, there are some funny lyrics, but then you hear something like 'Knoxville Girl' and there's so much there that it makes you think about all that can be contained in one song. I started getting more interested when I realized [songwriting] could be done in a different way and could be more satisfying."
Brett had been headed in that direction for a much longer time. Musically, he says, "Our biggest influence, pool of song, is a lot of the stuff people associate with the Harry Smith collection, the folk music that was recorded in the 'teens and '20s, which has antecedents in the British Isles and Scots-Irish stuff, the Appalachians. If you listen to our songs knowing that music enough, you will figure out the fact that we've extensively ripped it off. A lot of the vocal mannerisms, the contours of the melodies, are directly traceable to those ancestors. See, the great thing about folk music like that is that when you cover something, it's impossible to rip it off. It's just like another cut on the stone, another refinement of the song. Even if it sucks, just to make the thing go on is the important part—the fact that it persists in time."
They released Milk and Scissors in 1996; it was the first record that hewed to the songwriting formula they've followed since: all lyrics by Rennie, all music by Brett. "On the second record," Rennie says, "we got pretty serious about it. We were both kind of falling apart then emotionally, and trying to comfort ourselves and save ourselves by writing songs that would make us feel better." The record also gave the Handsomes a first sniff of modest commercial success. It garnered them a brief tour in the UK, where they would eventually grow more popular than they are here in the States. And though Rennie discreetly terms that first UK sojourn "disastrous," the message seemed clear enough to Brett. "As we started traveling a little more, it became apparent that it was a big world, full of idiots that we could sell this to," he laughs. "When you're just playing in your hometown, even if it is a big city like Chicago, you never think, hey, we could make a living out of this. But when you start to go over the ocean..."
Their third record, Through the Trees (1998), led with a song that ended up in heavy rotation on college/indie radio, "Weightless Again" ("This is why people OD on pills, or jump from the Golden Gate Bridge/Anything to feel weightless again"). This was the big career breakthrough, such as it was—meaning it left them in a position, if they were frugal, to start living off the proceeds of CD sales and touring. Rennie stopped filing. Brett stopped floating.
IV. I AM AFRAID OF BRIDGES, SOMETIMES I HAVE TO TURN AROUND
"Another thing I like about folk music," says Brett Sparks, "is you don't know anything about these people, and it conjures up all these images and these wild stories in your mind. Like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, he's a total wacko who's on the Harry Smith thing. You just conjure in your mind all these stories about people, what they look like, who they're married to—"
"And usually they're wrong," Rennie admits. "He [Lunsford] turned out not to be crazy at all."
"You know all these things about Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger," Brett says ruefully. "There's no mystery there."
"I was just sure that Dock Boggs had to be in prison," Rennie recalls, "but he turned out to be a Sunday school teacher. You make up things and usually they're not right at all, but I think it's nice not to have their images stuffed down your throat."
Brett laughs. "People are always making up this absurd stuff about us, too, and I just say, go with it. I don't care. It's fine. If they think we're some weird hippie Goth creeps, that's all right. It's better that way.
"People will ask us," he says wonderingly, "if we've done the things in our songs. 'Have you killed a man?'" He guffaws. If the Handsome Family inspire more bizarre fan queries than most mid-level indie cult bands, it's in part because their records fit no ready frame of musical or cultural reference. They don't suggest where, or when, these two are from. It's easier to imagine them taking baked goods to a barn-raising than hanging out at an after-party with the White Stripes. So fans wonder, ask questions, make up stories about the Handsome Family in the same way Brett and Rennie made up stories about Dock Boggs.
Most of that attention gets directed at Rennie. She's the one who writes those odd, lovely, often surreal lyrics, and it's easier to talk about word pictures than musical pictures. To an extent she cultivates the eccentric caricatures. In her concert patter, her Handsome Family newsletters, and sometimes in interviews, there is a line of shtick in which Rennie vamps as the sweet but vaguely menacing madwoman, spouting fragments of mythology and the names of dead lovers as she goes. Her recent newsletter announcing the release of Last Days of Wonder began thus: "The Greeks adorned their tombs with parsley wreaths for the plant was said to have sprung from the blood of the baby Archemorus (literally, "forerunner of death"), who, left alone on a riverbank by his nursemaid, was dragged into the water by a dragon and devoured." She told an interviewer once that her mother used to warn her against Santa Claus ("a very bad man"), insisting that he had started World War II.
Except that the Santa Claus story is not a joke, she swears. And St. Nick was not the only peril that young Rennie Rosner was encouraged to see in the larger gentile world as a Jewish girl from Long Island: "My parents always told me if anyone asked me my religion, I should tell them I was a Pilgrim and my family came over on the Mayflower. I never understood what their problem was, but then I realized later they're just really paranoid Jews, who feel like there's going to be some rounding up of Jews at a train station any minute now. When they were growing up, little kids were getting thrown in ovens across the sea, so I think they kind of still feel like the potential for that is there all the time. They were nervous for me to leave New York. They thought if I moved away, something bad would happen. For some reason, they felt like New York was the only safe place to be a Jew." At this, she laughs softly.
Music didn't interest Rennie that much as a kid, though certain records did stick in her mind and stay: "My parents used to put me to sleep with these scratchy Burl Ives records. They were really scary, some of them, but at the same time really comforting. He's got that soft, sweet voice, and the songs always had little animals playing in the woods, but there's a menacing quality underneath it that I don't think you're supposed to notice as a kid. Unfortunately I did. There's something really scary about his voice. He sounds like he's singing on the top of a mountain and so alone, and he can't ever be comforted except by singing, because no one can ever get up on top of that snow-covered mountain where he is..."
Perhaps not surprisingly, she proved to be a nervous child, acutely observant—a writer and a reader first, as far as passions went. "When I was about five," she says, "I used to think about myself, in my head, what I looked like. And I would imagine an old man with a really long white beard, and then I'd look in the mirror and I was this little girl. I would always feel like I looked haggard and depressed and dark, and people would pinch my cheek and say, you look so cute! Inner and outer have always been a problem for me."
The problem, she means, is distinguishing inner and outer, self and world, knowing where one stops and the other starts. This is the most recurring theme when she talks about songs she's written, how feelings and things and states of being that are supposed to be solidly, logically at odds with each other just start to melt and merge when she tries to sort them out. Funny and somber. Happy and sad. Sacred and profane. Love and death. ("They go hand in hand. There is a certain death that comes in when you fall into someone's arms. You disappear a little bit, or you become a different person. It's not a bad thing.")
Not to mention forests and big-box retail stores: These things, too, are really the same in a sense, according to Rennie. "I've been noticing that when you go into these giant warehouse stores, it's really like a hunting trip," she says. "It's replaced the experience of the wilderness for us. I think we still kind of long for this sense of the lone hunter with his gun out in the woods, trying to find a deer. These stores fill a wordless need that we still have. We are just the same as we ever were. Daniel Boone is shopping at Wal-Mart now. Instead of deer, he's looking for cheap shoes.
"For a lot of Americans right now, parking lots are the only place that they're ever outside. It's kind of like our forest, the only time when we're ever walking through the world."
Rennie's penchant for glimpsing intimations of history and myth out of the corner of her eye is one of the things that drew her to folk/traditional music in the first place, after Brett brought home the Anthology of American Folk Music. (Of Harry Smith, she says simply, "He gave us a past we didn't have before.")
"I think if you take murder ballads as some kind of sick obsession with death," she declares, "that's missing the essential truth behind them." It's the most emphatic-sounding thing she has had to say in a couple of hours' worth of conversation. "They're not, to me, about voyeurism, like people slowing down when they pass a car crash. If you trace the songs back, you find that they go back to these pre-Christian Pagan chants that are about fertility, about harvest, about connection to nature. People used to spread blood on the fields so crops would grow. They're at that level. A lot of them are blood rituals to connect you to the world.
"I think the emotional upheaval, the tragic element of them, is in a way just what Aristotle used to say about tragedy: It's a catharsis because it makes you feel suddenly alive and connected. It's a great release. I think that's what these ancient rituals were about, too. Some Native Americans used to act out their bad dreams. The whole family would get involved in acting out the parts of the bad dream, and it would somehow make people feel a lot better. It's a nice way to deal with mental problems, by thinking they're group problems and trying to help each other. When you bottle these things up, it never works out."
V. WHERE SONGS COME FROM, THE MYSTERY REVEALED
One point the demi-legend of Rennie the Mad Genius serves to obscure is how hard the Handsome Family work at writing songs and recording them. The process always begins with her lyrics, which are rewritten constantly as they're composed and then again when they're made into songs, and the number of syllables per line has to be made to match the number of beats per line. In addition to writing the music, Brett handles every detail of the recording, from placing the mics to the mixdown of the eventual master. "Recording is the one thing I enjoy most about having a career in music," he says. "I like it more than playing out, I like it more than writing songs. I really like to record. It's my hobby. It's my video game. So I like to put a lot of time and energy and playfulness into it." (Since they moved to Albuquerque in 2001—Brett grew up in the area—he has had a converted garage for a studio. In the Chicago apartment, he recorded the Handsome Family in the living room.)
"You never leave things at the demo," Rennie says. "You always add layers and layers of stuff, because you like to."
"I'm kind of tired of people writing all this half-baked stuff and recording it in an even less professional manner. It's not that hard to make a good recording. It really isn't. Get a good mic, get the level right. There's this certain affectation associated with the DIY movement that gets irritating..."
"Like, it's authentic if it's sloppy," Rennie chuckles. "I think people believe something is authentic because it wasn't thought about too much. It's such a crazy way to write."
But if the Handsome Family are careful and purposeful about every aspect of their records that they can control, it still leaves the matter of conceiving and writing songs, a process Rennie has never had much luck trying to steer. "I sit down every day to try to write, but I write a lot of songs on the way to Home Depot, in Home Depot, or on the way home," she says. "Home Depot is such a horrifying experience—you're always there because something's broken and there's a huge puddle of water. The one we have to go to is far from our house and there's a lot of traffic. It's really exhausting. Sometimes when I'm in the grip of that kind of stuff, the part of my brain that writes songs can go to work. I'll be driving in traffic feeling shitty, and suddenly I'll have a moment of clarity and wind up scribbling something on a piece of paper in the car and swerving all over the road."
There's no telling where you'll catch a thread that has the kernel of a song tied to the other end. "The Giant of Illinois," a strikingly vivid ballad from Through the Trees, sprang from a AAA Travel Guide blurb about Robert Wardlow, the Giant of Illinois, who in the early 20th century grew to a height of nearly nine feet and became a sad, minor newsreel celebrity. The song "Tin Foil," on Milk and Scissors, was inspired by Brett's mother, more or less. "His mother freezes everything," Rennie explains. "She was wrapping something in tinfoil, and I was just looking at the tinfoil and thinking how beautiful tinfoil was, and how sparkling, and how great it was to have this beautiful thing that you just wrapped things in and put them in the freezer. The tinfoil never actually made it into the song, though, only the title."
A promiscuous reader, Rennie also finds nuggets of songs in history books and tabloid articles. "I read a lot of first-person narrative things, like pioneer stories and stuff," she recounts. "I like things like that. And stories about people who cured themselves of cancer by going macrobiotic. I tend to go to bookstores and just pick stuff at random. I found some good books that way. Out here, especially, you see a lot of books, like, about people abducted by aliens. I like that kind of tone, the real ominous quality of first-person autobiography.
"I'm not really after the truth," she says later. "I tend to veer off pretty quickly. I'm not interested in being a journalist, or a historian. I'm more interested in what myth-making is about." Occasionally, though, she has latched on to historical figures or real events to seed songs. On the new record, there is "Tesla's Hotel Room," which imagines an inner life for the father of alternating-current electricity and contains one of the funniest lines she's ever written.
And on Singing Bones (2003), there is a song called "The Bottomless Hole" that's based on a true story, though only a few people with high-level government security clearances possess the complete details. Brett and Rennie know because they heard about it on Coast to Coast with Art Bell, a syndicated late-night AM radio show that regularly features dispatches on secret agencies' research into telepathy as a tool for spying, and interviews with investment counselors who have discovered that all the market's moves are foretold, in code, in the Bible. Even though Art Bell has since left the show ("the new host is a moron," Rennie moans), the two of them try not to miss it.
"Yeah," Brett confirms, "that song is all Art Bell. We heard about this bottomless hole, Mel's Hole, on his show. He talked about it for like three weeks. Then the government got rid of somebody, and then I don't know what—oh, it was great. A scary story, too, really weird. Scarier than our story."
A chat board poster from unsolvedmysteries.com fills in the rest:
have you heard of mels hole? theres supposed to be a hole near elensburg washington that goes down over 15 miles. the man that owned this land was on coast to coast with art bell. the next [day] the goverment had his property blocked off and told the man that there was a plain wreck on it. months later art bell got an email from the man now liveing in australia saying the goverment is paying him millions of dollars for the land. if you heard about this story what do you think?
There are a lot of Handsome Family songs that invoke hidden or barely seen worlds. Does that fact, coupled with the serious Art Bell fetish, lead them to feel a certain sympathy with those folks who spend their lives hunkered down waiting for the black helicopters to come?
"Oh, sure," Rennie says brightly. "I love those people."
"We went through that," Brett avers.
"Our mandolin player," Rennie goes on, "is convinced that George Bush is sleeping with Condoleezza Rice. He believes that Nutrasweet is turning us all into robots or something, and that's how they're mind-controlling us. He refuses to go to the dentist because he thinks they're going to put an implant in his tooth. Who am I to say? At least he's thinking outside the prescribed thought patterns of useful Americans. I think it's important to question everything."
Brett: "I don't think we could travel on the road with somebody who didn't believe that they should own some gold or something. They all know what the term Illuminati means." He's laughing.
"That's the only way I can live in this country," Rennie blurts, "is by listening to Coast to Coast and going to those kinds of websites, because it reminds me that Americans are all out there dreaming of UFOs and seeing the Virgin Mary on the side of buildings and seeing big footprints in their yard and being convinced there's Yeti out there. That's what makes me fond of my country. That's really what I love about Americans, is their ability to dream those kind of dreams."
"Their stupidity?" Brett razzes.
"I don't think it's stupid," she answers reflexively. Then, more deliberately: "I think it's an ability for irrational thought that's really crucial. Because rational thought, I mean—that'll kill you. It's not all it's cracked up to be. The part of your brain that's not rational, that's not conscious, is the smart part. It's important to follow inklings where they lead."
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