Do it anyway: touring advice from The Handsome Family

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Handsome Family

The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks on how good things can come from the worst gigs

[This article was written by Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family, whose song “Far from Any Road” was recently used in the opening credits to HBO’s “True Detective” series. The article was originally published at Pyragraph, a career & lifestyle magazine for musicians, artists, filmmakers, writers and other creatives.]

Few moments in my career as a musician have been as low as the day we pulled up in front of a liquor store in Wichita, Kansas. It was a dusty building surrounded by cattle feed lots full of forlorn and filthy cows mooing in the heat. The air was oppressive, full of manure and mud. I didn’t want to get out of the car.

I’ve played my share of dives over my 20 years in a band.

Some of these places turned out to be wonderful memories and some not so wonderful, but I’m usually game to see what awaits when we pull up in front of a sketchy looking venue. Something about this place on this day, though, left me hollowed out. We unloaded and played, of course. This is my job, after all, but it’s sad when your heart isn’t in the very work you’ve dreamed up for yourself.

To be fair: This was probably the only venue that would book us in Wichita at the time. It may still be. And, to be honest, this place is still in business and still booking bands. There must be bands happy to play there and people happy to see them play. None of that is any comfort when you’re miserable.

Between piled cases of beer there was a space for us to play ringed with turned-over crates for people to sit on. Our audience sat inches away from us while we played. Now when I say “audience” I mean there were six or seven exhausted looking people perched uncomfortably on plastic crates and a few people milling around in the back, maybe shopping for beer or maybe just taking a break from the heat and stench outside.

This was a free show and that often guarantees that no one feels obliged to pay any attention to the music. Some people were clearly there to drink. Some looked like they’d woken up on a plastic crate in a beer store and were unsure how they’d gotten there. A few looked like they’d come specifically to pick a fight with the band. I felt like even if I doused myself in gasoline and lit myself ablaze not one dull face would have flickered to life nor would anybody have bothered to move from the flames. Yes, I was in a foul mood.

We played our set, but I played with a bitterness inside that rattled me. I knew if I kept on playing shows with that kind of foul heart I wouldn’t be able to do this job much longer—a terrible thought when you’re actually working the very job you dreamed up for yourself.

After our set we half-heartedly passed around a tip jar.

I didn’t bother trying to sell CDs. I saw that some people passed the tip jar forward without contributing. I think I saw one guy steal a dollar out of it. In the end we got a few quarters and a few filthy dollar bills, but then at the last minute a guy I hadn’t even noticed in the crowd came up and put a folded note in the jar then turned and left the store without a word.

When I unfolded the paper there was a traveler’s check inside made out for $150 and a note that read, “I am diagnosed with terminal lymphoma and tonight was the first night I’ve smiled in six months. Thank you!”

The point of this story is not to encourage you to play every beer store or to boast about our huge fan base of terminally ill people. What I want is to remind you (as this story still reminds me) that every chance you’re given to offer your art to the world is a chance for adding meaning to life (yours and other people’s). You may not know how meaningful your work is for some time. You may never know. Have faith, though, that what you’ve put your heart into will speak to the heart of another. It might speak to a lot of other people. It might only speak to one and then another one and another. It adds up.

There have been many other “horrible shows” along the path of my musical career, but the amazing thing is this: There have also been just as many times when fans have told me that they first saw us play and fell in love with our music at a show I remember distinctly as being god-awful, ignored, meaningless.

Take a moment now and again to consider if the hopelessness you feel as an artist is coming from within or from without. Leave some cracks in your armor where the light can get in. Have faith.


Author bio: Rennie Sparks is lyricist and musician for The Handsome Family, whose “Far from Any Road” was used as the theme music to HBO’s popular “True Detective” series. Their newest CD, Wilderness, is accompanied by a book of essays and art, all concerning eels, wildebeest, octopi, woodpeckers and the like. Follow the band on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo by Peri Pakroo.

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  • Beautiful!

  • Tim Bryant

    Well said! Great story…

  • can u send me contact info for place in witchita–johnny dowd

  • Sean O’Neill

    I wonder if Rennie remembers playing at Lissard in Ireland – I was delighted to informally ‘open’ for the Handsome family on a lovely small stage by a lake. When Brett and Rennie took to the stage, the soundman’s free roaming Newfoundland puppy decided it had had enough of swimming in the lake and joined them – making the stage quite a bit smaller

  • Ha. Cozy stage. Did the puppy sing along ala

    @ Chris Robley

  • Jungle Gym Jam

    It’s so true that your artistry has an effect on people that doesn’t always come back to you as accolades. Approaching the tough gigs with that note in mind can help you through them. Kudos for that post!

  • Some Guy

    As a musician, some of my best gigs have been at smaller venues. I’ve played for 15 and 5,000…there is an intimacy to smaller venues that don’t exist in larger rooms and it gives you a greater chance to connect with the audience. My favourite gigs are the venues that can hold a thousand and only a score show up. I play like it’s a theatre.

  • Dave Freeman

    i played a show last week to a decent crowd but way smaller than i anticipated. the defeated feeling of ‘why do we bother’ kept creeping up. the show was awesome though and we had people in the crowd singing harmonies to our new songs that we debuted for the first time that night.
    long story short, this article got me in the feels because you’re absolutely right. just because the show isn’t up to the band’s expectations doesn’t mean one of the audience members isn’t having the time of THEIR life while listening to your music.
    thanks for this story.

  • Rich Layton

    Been playing for 35 years and boy do I know this feeling. So, now I keep my eyes open for that redemptive moment that validates what you’re doing. One night, it was a Vietnam vet who had lost both lower legs and got out of his wheelchair to dance on what was left. Recently, a fan who’s daughter was in the hospital and not expected to make it posted that a song I had written helped him get through more than a few nights at her bedside. There’s a purpose to the music we make even when we don’t know what it is.

  • Deborah Wedekind

    Great Article! Lately, I’ve had some questions about my career and where it’s going, and why I’m not getting the support I thought I’d get from those I care about most (a lack of support not from everyone, but many, especially family!). I’ve been songwriting & singing for just over 2 years full-time. But I look back at what I’ve accomplished in just over 2 years: 3 albums (one of them produced by a Grammy Winner, and achieving a 5-star rating from most review blogs), plus, a single. I also look at the fact that I did over 65 bookings last year, and have many on the calendar for this year (yeah some are for charity, and are freebies, but that’s cool too, I’ve gotten a lot of gigs from playing for charities.) So I’m actually exercising faith (the religious kind too!) and trusting God that I’m in this for a reason. That means I will keep on with my vision of making great music that will stand the test of time and appeal to a worldwide audience-who needs hope, joy and great music. ~ DeDe

  • velvetpiano

    Nicely put – you just NEVER know who’s in the audience! If/when you get the performance ‘blues’… think back to a/the time when you yourself attended something which so inspired and/or excited you… can you remember how the performer felt?

  • “the worst gigs” – interesting phrase if you can’t get gigs at all.

  • This is a very good story indeed, much like the one about the Police during their first tour to the US when they played to a house of less than ten people. As luck would have it, six of them were DJs and the next day they started playing ‘Roxanne’ on their various radios. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    You just never know who’s going to be in the audience, however, small it may be.

  • Great story.

    Actually, I’ve just had the same sort of thing happen with a crowd review.

    A couple of years back, I brought out an instrumental called ‘Mist’ but I did absolutely nothing with it, no publicity, didn’t send it to any radios, absolutely nada. I was convinced that it was too simple and unvaried to have any sort of success with people and it wasn’t my usual sort of music anyway, so what the hell. But a few people bought it on iTunes anyway and so finally I decided to shell out twenty bucks to have a crowd review just to make sure. Got the review yesterday. Although there were some positive reviews, a lot of the feedback was negative – boring, repetitive, doesn’t go anywhere – in short, just what I expected. But in the midst of all was this comment:

    ‘You have created one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.’ in case you’d like to hate it or love it.

  • Well that’s encouraging. No such thing as one-size-fits-all in music.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Ha. Good point. Perspective.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Thanks so much for sharing this Chris. It’s one of my favorite Pyragraph posts and I’m happy to see it pushed out a bit. 🙂

  • Well, thanks for publishing good stuff!

    @ Chris Robley

  • After all, you want your music to reach people, touch people, and make difference right? Then it really doesn’t matter where you’re playing. If you believe in yourself and your message, then people may listen and appreciate what you’re offering.