Listen to this track by gothic Americana proponents The Handsome Family. It’s “So Much Wine”, a cut as taken off of their 2000 record, In The Air. On this record, the band that is made up of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks along with collaborators, continue their artistic path that evokes the darker corners of old-time and country music which had helped to lend perspective in the nineties, when glossy country-pop ruled the airwaves.
Country music and the folk musics out of which it came always had this darker edge to it, concerning itself with loss and loneliness, and not in a way that was so easily lampooned by outsiders and non-fans of the genre over the decades. Like the blues, country music was always about being at ground level, and very often a lot lower than that spiritually speaking. It dealt in being pulled in two directions; up into the light of divinely inspired well-being, and down into the depths of despair and hell.
That’s where The Handsome Family staked their territory when they began in the early nineties, and very much continue to do so on this tune.
Country music is known for its propensity for storytelling. This has always been one of its strengths. Even some of the schlockiest country songs you can think of usually get this part of the songwriting right. To me, this is down to how country has developed from its earliest days. The crying in one’s beer style of country song, which many tend to think of when conjuring what a typical country song is like, is really only a part of the tradition. Country music comes out of folk songs and tales that are often centuries old. Many of them don’t end well. But, like the blues, they offer a spiritual dimension, too.
That’s what this tune hooks into so well. For all of its ties to older and dustier folk traditions beyond the glitz of Nashville and CMT cowboy hats, it remains thoroughly modern. Because human foibles and weaknesses haven’t changed all that much. This is a tale of a relationship undone by addiction, with love not being enough to sustain a union between two people due to alcoholism. This theme of drinking and getting drunk is pretty rife within the country songwriting tradition, of course. But, there’s nothing glib or cute about the bottle in this song. This is real life, with all of the destruction and tragedy that addictions can bring not only to the addicted, but to everyone connected to them, right up front.
The story told here is a dark night of the soul that is not fixed to any tradition or to an era. It is raw human experience that we hope we will never have to face; the loved one who hurts themselves, and hurts everyone they love in the process. Worse still, this song communicates the realization that sometimes, you can’t save someone from themselves. As long as this remains a constant, country songs will never really go out of style. Luckily too, neither will storytelling in song in general, which has been a constant balm to humanity as we seek those things that remind us that, even in our darkest hours, we are not alone.
The Handsome Family are an active band today. You can learn more about them at handsomefamily.com.