By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

June 10, 2004

They were raised by coyotes . . . behind an abandoned Spanish mission . . . in the desert foothills of the Southwest.

Well, no, not really, but that's what the Handsome Family might say if you asked them.

The Handsome Family is -- well, let them tell it, from the Web site they created:

"The Handsome Family is a small family consisting of husband and wife, Brett (originally from Texas) and Rennie Sparks (from Long Island, N.Y.), who have been married for fifteen years. . . . Brett, who writes the music (and sings lead), is proud of his ability to sing Schubert with Texas drawl intact. Rennie, who writes the lyrics (and sings harmonies), has been recognized internationally for her ability to sob for hours on end."

Their new CD, "Singing Bones," is their sixth. It is energized by their recent move to Albuquerque, N.M., from Chicago. The desert imagery is perfectly suited to songs about haunted convenience stores, bottomless holes and girls with golden hair who should know better by now than to leave rural purity for urban evil.

For all of their humor and off-center stage presence, the Handsome Family, who play the Duck Room as part of Twangfest tonight, are carrying on a very old folk music tradition, updated by modern myths and sensibilities. The stripped-bare music is sung by Brett in a kind of Johnny Cash matter-of-factness, making Rennie's spooky lyrics all the more evocative.

For example, in "24-Hour Store," "the sleepless and lost/Push their squeaking carts/Down the rows of clothes/And see nothing at all/No, no one hears the singing bones."

The Sparkses were on tour in Europe just before Memorial Day when our few questions were delivered to Rennie Sparks by a mysterious cloaked figure riding atop a black carriage pulled by a team of four wild-maned horses.

OK, it was really by e-mail.

Q. I never ask the stupid question -- Where do you get your ideas? -- but, in your case, I think I have to.

A. On full moons, we sacrifice chickens and examine their entrails for hidden messages. Sometimes I just throw a handful of bones against the back door.

Q. How did you arrive at this gothic-country niche? Did it develop or was it the plan from the start?

A. Blood sacrifice and lots of shoplifting. Honestly, we're happy to not be locked up in mental hospitals. All the rest is pure sugar.

Q. Brett's voice so suits your lyrics, and playing it straight serves the material so well. How do you influence each other's work?

A. Brett says he's like Dusty Springfield, who concentrated only on the melody and paid no attention to the words oozing out of her mouth.

He likes to sing my syllables, and I like having him sing them. It just wouldn't have the same dignity if I was up there singing in my baby voice about shooting someone five times in the back.

Q. Tell me about your outside influences -- musical, literary, TV ("Twilight Zone"?!), etc.

A. I read books I find at random in thrift stores. Leads the mind in odd directions. I just read a book about UFO abduction, and one about a 30-day cure for cancer.

Q. Please tell me a bit about your pre-Handsome Family background: where you grew up, went to school, day jobs, etc.

A. We met in a penal colony in the South Seas. I traded him a shark tooth for a cigarette.

Other than that we're pretty middle class. I come from a thousand years of tailors and shop clerks, and Brett's family have been horse thieves for centuries.