Musical artists would practically commit murder to have one of their songs become the theme for a hit series. For HBO’s new critically acclaimed miniseries, True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana sleuths, and New Mexico-based Americana band the Handsome Family, it is a marriage made in heaven (or hell?). True Detective is a dark, Gothic crime anthology about occult murders that has become HBO’s highest-rated series debut since 2010. The Handsome Family’s lyrics and songs are equally twisted and melancholic; it is no wonder True Detective found the Handsome Family.
It was musician/producer legend T Bone Burnett, musical director for the series, who chose the Handsome Family’s Far From Any Road to be the opening theme song for True Detective, which first aired Jan. 12. The song is emblematic of the group’s style, a blend of folk, bluegrass, alternative, country and a smattering of rock. Most of all, it is a “murder ballad.”
Burnett is an Oscar-winning musician who recently assembled the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis. He says he loves detective movies and novels by notable authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The Handsome Family is a husband and wife team consisting of Brett Sparks on vocals, guitar and keyboard, and Rennie Sparks on bass, banjo and vocals. The band was formed in 1993. Brett hails from Odessa, Texas, while Brett is from Long Island, New York. They were based in Chicago, but relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
According to Brett, he chose the name “Handsome Family” for the group since one of the original band members nicknamed him “Handsome.” The term stuck.
The group’s first releases were Odessa and Milk and Scissors. The band slowly built up a following, tirelessly touring the United States and Europe. It was during that time that Brett was hospitalized as a result of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The group’s third album, Through the Trees, reflects Brett’s experiences about that period. Since then, husband and wife have released such albums as Twilight, In the Air, Live at Shuba’s Tavern, Singing Bones, Last Days of Wonder, Honey Moon, Smothered and Covered and Scattered. A new album is due next Ma, called Wilderness.
The song Far From Any Road is taken from the group’s album Singing Bones from 2003, and evokes images of dusty mesas, poison creosote and fingers running with blood. The song contains an opening montage of unsettling images that promises to take the viewer to a dark vexing place with maybe some light at the end.
The group’s songs, like Far From Any Road, are sometime characterized as “murder ballads” or “death dirges,” which are subgenres of the ballad form. The lyrics usually revolve around the events of a murder, including events prior, the characters, and the events following the murder. Murder ballads date back hundreds of years in Europe.
American folk music is no stranger to murder ballads. Perhaps the best known example is the Kingston Trio’s Tom Dooley. Other examples include Bob Dylan’s Lilly of the West, Joan Baez’s Banks of the Ohio, Johnny Cash’s Frankie and Johnny, and the Chieftains’ The Long Black Veil.
While already a hit, True Detective should marshal more viewers as McConaughey has a high profile now. He is a Best Actor nominee at the Academy Awards for the film, Dallas Buyer’s Club. He also received rave reviews for his recent film Mud. Some critics say McConaughey is a shoo in for an Emmy Best Actor nod for his intense portrayal of the brilliant, enigmatic and mercurial detective Rustin “Rust” Cole in True Detective.
Burnett has also infused the series with other intriguing and atmospheric music besides the Handsome Family. The eclectic mix features such known and lesser known artists as Lucinda Williams, the Staple Singers, Bo Diddley, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Father John Misty, the 13th Floor Elevators, Melvins and Grinderman.
As True Detective continues to gain more popularity, the Handsome Family will no doubt gain wider popularity as well. In this tale of flesh and blood Louisiana bloodhounds, True Detective found a Handsome Family for many viewers.
By Jim McCullaugh