July 6, 2006


Songs That Fall from the Sky: Meet the Handsome Family: the Story of the Band that Forgot Time (STEVE PERRY, July 5, 2006, City Pages)

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. [....]

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.

"He gave us a past we didn't have before": Harry Smith in the mid-1980s

Photo by Allen Ginsberg
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.

"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." [...]

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."

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 6, 2006 9:58 AM

Jim Reeves had to go.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 6, 2006 2:26 PM