A true taste of southern gothic from country duo The Handsome Family

Rennie and Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family: touring Ireland next week.

The theme tune to True Detective brought The Handsome Family to a whole new audience, writes Don O’Mahony

IT’S a case worthy of the southern sleuths who fronted the first series of True Detective. 

Rennie Sparks, one half of dark country duo The Handsome Family (with her husband Brett), is at a loss to explain how their 2003 song ‘Far From Any Road’ adorns the opening credits of the acclaimed HBO series.

“I have no idea,” she says, still sounding surprised. “I got an email one day from somebody who works for somebody who works for somebody who works for HBO saying they were thinking about using our song in a new cop show, that they would use it for 30 seconds in an interrogation room scene. And then they said: ‘And PS: we’re also considering it for the theme song’.”

Having already spent 20 years ploughing a happy furrow away from the glare of mainstream attention the pair didn’t give it another thought. Until a few months later, when another email found its way to their New Mexico homestead, confirming that theirs would be the theme song to the show.

“And then I thought, ‘Well, there’s so many cop shows it’s not going to be that interesting’,” recalls Rennie. “But it turned out to be a really good show and a really nice placement for our song.

“It seems like they chose the song really carefully because it does sit really well. I don’t know who ultimately made the decision but I can only say thank you.”

But… thank who? Could it be celebrated songwriter and record producer T Bone Burnett, the man behind the music on the show?

“I don’t know,” she laughs. “I’ve never talked to him.”

Perhaps it was actor Matthew McConaughey?

“Well we did hear from him once about 15 years ago when he’d first started out as an actor and he did mention that he liked us, so I mean it could have been him,” she shrugs.

There are potential leads, she suggests. She has since found out that a friend from her grad school days happens to be a friend of the show’s writer Nic Pizzolatto.

Regardless of who made the decision, she’s grateful.

“I really don’t know how we got on the radar but I’m thankful we did. I always feel like unless you have connections maybe these things are impossible. But I don’t really have any connections and I don’t know any cool people so it was nice that our song just made it on its own merits.”

The last two years have seen Rennie and Brett field countless questions about what it’s like being the theme tune to True Detective. If this has jaded her, it doesn’t show.

“People seem like there might be another answer besides it’s good,” she smiles. “It’s only good. There’s no bad to it.”

For years The Handsome Family’s surreal tales and bone-dry sense of humour has flown over most people’s heads. Rennie feels the judicious matching of their music with the show offers a suitable context for their music.

“Someone came up to us after a show once,” she begins, recalling a not uncommonly expressed criticism, “and he said: ‘I know you’re making fun of something, but I don’t know what it is’. People always feel like we’re somehow talking about something they don’t understand.

“I used to hear that criticism a lot but I don’t feel like that’s what I’m doing at all. I feel like I’m just trying to write good songs about what it feels like to be alive.”

The band has plenty of fervent admirers to testify to this. Christy Moore covered two of their songs on his Burning Times album and Greil Marcus, the high priest of American cultural commentary, has lauded them. The duo also had a really interesting contribution to recent BBC series Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South.

Rennie may be appreciative of their newfound attention but she’s unlikely to be swayed by it. “The joy in writing songs isn’t about pleasing other people. It’s about making something that I think is surprising and beautiful.”

The Handsome Family play Dolans, Limerick, Thursday, March 26; Whelan’s, Dublin, Friday, March 27; and the Crane Lane Theatre, Cork on Saturday, March 28 and Sunday 29

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