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The Handsome Family Q&A: This Is a Nice Night for a Pedal Steel

The husband-and-wife country duo talk about their return to Chicago for tonight’s free show in Millennium Park.

Photo: Jason Creps

The Handsome Family play Millennium Park tonight at 6:30. 

Spouses Brett and Rennie Sparks formed their gothic country-folk duo the Handsome Family in 1993, and the pair is marking their 20th anniversary with, arguably, their most ambitious project to date. Wilderness, the Handsome Family’s 13th release, is a concept record about animals and the imaginative connections Rennie with them, set to Brett’s lushly arranged music and with an accompanying book of essays written by Rennie. 

The couple, who moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2000 and make their records in their garage studio, return to Chicago to perform at Millennium Park tonight as part of the City of Chicago’s Downtown Sound series. Brett spoke about Wilderness and the band’s early days on Chicago’s music scene.

Chicago Magazine: How did the record and book come about, and which one came first?

Brett Sparks: It kind of rose organically. We have a newsletter that Rennie sends out periodically. Over the last couple of years, she’s included these little medieval bestiaries or zoological tracts, sometimes true, sometimes totally fanciful. 

You started out here in Chicago. What prompted the move to Albuquerque?

We were on the road for at least six months out of every year and we were dropping a lot of money living in Wicker Park, which was gentrifying at a real fast clip. I remember getting to the Damen ‘L’ stop in the early 90s, thinking, ‘why did I move here, this is kind of dodgy.’ Now I can’t afford to eat at any the restaurants in that neighborhood. [New Mexico] is home for me. I was born and raised in Texas and New Mexico. My mom and dad live here, my brother lives here. It’s family.

How’s it feel to be coming back here to play Millennium Park?

This show is a watershed [moment] for us. Millennium Park is very big, and people look very small next to that (Frank) Gehry building. This show is looming large. During rehearsals we’ve been, ‘it’s all well and good for the honky tonks, but is it gonna fly in a place this big?’ On a nice summer night, though, do you want to be pummeled over the head with speed metal or anthem rock? Maybe it’s nice to hear a gentle waltz with pedal steel accompaniment.

The Handsome Family perform July 22 at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph. Free. 

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