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'It's easier being on the road together than being at home', says The Handsome Family's Brett Sparks


The Handsome Family

The Handsome Family

The Handsome Family

Ahead of The Handsome Family's gig at the Belfast Empire next week, Brett Sparks tells Edwin Gilson about the ups and downs of being in a successful band with your spouse.

If the saga of Garth Brooks' cancelled concert dates at Croke Park last year - and the subsequent dismay of the US singer's legions of fans - taught us anything, it was that people here just can't get enough of all things Americana. It is no surprise then to hear Brett Sparks, of husband-wife New Mexico act The Handsome Family, declare that his band's distinctly American brand of country music always "goes down well" on these shores.

As he and Rennie (his band and life partner) prepare for a gig at Belfast's Empire Music Hall next Wednesday, Brett - who with his heavy white beard and spectacles has the appearance of wisdom - validates this shallow impression with an interesting theory about the Irish attachment to the musical heritage of America.

"I think it makes a lot of sense," he says. "Essentially the music that we're influenced by has its roots in Ireland. Then it gradually moved west. We're just bringing it back home!"

According to the multi-instrumentalist the American South, his home, is "a cradle of everything that's good and bad about the country as a whole".

"You've got the blues, rock 'n' roll, country music, Louis Armstrong … it's been a bubbling cauldron of great culture," he adds. "So you go down to the South, expecting it to all be great, but it's over! I don't think you can overstate its importance historically; it just ain't there no more. The South only really exists in our memory."

The perceived darkness of the area has been brought to the attention of the masses recently through the popular television drama True Detective, whose theme song, Far From Any Road, was penned by The Handsome Family.

"We initially thought the song was going to be used in a single scene, then they decided to use it as the theme," recalls Brett. "At the time we were like: 'Oh great, another cop show.' But the makers of the programme played with a lot of interesting ideas. They were really messing with that idea of the scary, gothic southern undercurrent."

Questions of American identity have partly informed Rennie's lyrics over The Handsome Family's 22-year lifespan (she is primary scribe of the band), but generally her themes are widespread and unpredictable. The duo's last album, 2013's Wilderness, was dominated by the natural world.

"Yeah, Rennie's got a disease … it's called reading," jokes Brett when asked about Rennie's lyrical influence. "She's written essays on nature, so I told her she should write a book, which she did, and at the same time she decided to work some of those words into our songs. I thought it was a great idea. Book, essays, records - we'll make billions!"

Joking over, Brett abruptly states his concern about The Handsome Family being dismissed as a nostalgia act, in evident thrall to American bluegrass musicians of yore.

"I don't sit down and try to write a Steve Earle-style country ballad or anything," he says. "I'm just writing songs, and some of those just happened to be country songs."

As our interview comes to an end, I ask Brett if it's important for he and Rennie to give each other space occasionally in the hectic schedule of touring and recording. I'm met with a snort. "We've been married for 25 years, so we never get any space, not even at home. We're together all the time. We get on well, though, we're friends and we can talk to each other. In some ways it's easier being on the road than at home."

  • The Handsome Family play The Empire, Belfast, next Wednesday, March 25. Visit www.thebelfastempire.com

Belfast Telegraph