Eco-Friendly Country Music: A Review of The Handsome Family’s ‘Bottomless Hole’

The Handsome Family: Brett Sparks (left), Rennie Sparks (right).

The Handsome Family: Brett Sparks (left), Rennie Sparks (right).

When fist listening to The Handsome Family’s ‘Bottomless Hole’, from their 2003 album Singing Bones, (featuring ‘Far From Any Road’, which was recently used as the introduction to the hit HBO dram True Detective) it is easy to get lost in the melodic droning echoes of the vocals provided by Brett Sparks and the rhythmic unison of the instrumentation that defines that alternative country sound which The Handsome Family produces.  Brett Sparks’s somber, nihilist tone, and the steady pulsing banjo, played unobtrusively by Rennie Sparks, lulls the listener into an almost hypnotic state, making it all too easy to follow the song through without really engaging with the lyrics.  The lyrics, though, provided by Rennie Sparks, are equally worthy of praise.  The words offer a first-person narrative that delves into questions of one’s history, identity, relationship with the environment, and failure to recognize flawed reasoning when applied to environmental concerns. The song reflects a self-reflective mentality that is oftentimes lacking in American country music and challenges the listener to evaluate who they are, what they are doing and why they believe what they believe.

 

 

Rennie Sparks

Rennie Sparks

The first verse raises questions concerning identity, whilst also situating the narrative as one whose carbon footprint is no doubt in excess of what it ought to be.  He starts off saying: “My name, I don’t remember/ Though I hail from Ohio”.  Here we see that the poetic voice is missing a personal identity, but is able to identify with a region, specifically Ohio.  This is a reflection of the regionalist tendency in American politics, which has propelled conflict in the American political arena since the nation was birthed and has often served to foster a tribal approach to identity.  American literature has often explored such regional identities, most distinctly in landmark works such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  The unnamed narrator goes on to state: “I had a wife and children”, defining himself through familial ties as well as regional ones.  Though not explicitly a patriarchal force, he can be identified as a paternal figure.  It is also important that, though he mentions his wife and children, he does not mention his parents.  The past, for the narrator, is absent, and all that exists for him is his wife, who can be said to represent the present, and his children, who represent the future.  This omission is  important in an ecocritical context because the past, which could be represented by his parents, is unchangeable.  Present approaches can be changed in order to benefit the future generations, but the finger pointing that has gone on in the past and was addressed in Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’, is simply not productive.  What needs to be changed is how we do things now.  It is in the fourth line of the song that we are first introduced to the ecocritical theme, as the narrator continues that he “had… Good ties on [his] car”.  Being from Ohio, a state that is renowned for its manufacturing sector and contributions to the auto industry, it is no surprise that that this man has a car.  That reinforces Ohio’s role in the consumption of environmental resources.  There are any number of car parts which the narrator could have referenced, but he specifically chose to reference the tires, which are comprised of tar and rubber (amongst other resources).  The manufacturing plants that produce tires have, in South America at least, torn down acres of rain forests.  The car then, which runs on gas and is synonymous with the depleting of non-renewable resources, is linked strongly with the tires, which also generates a dramatic strain on the environment.

 

 

Much like her lyrical content, Rennie Sparks's paintings also draw from nature for their content.

Much like her lyrical content, Rennie Sparks’s paintings also draw from nature for their content.

The transition from the first stanza to the second is stark and makes the link with ecology more prominent.  The source of the conflict is “found behind [the] barn” of the narrator’s home and takes the form of what is believed to be a bottomless hole.  Situating the narrative on a farm, which is supposed to be a place where land is cultivated, serves to highlight the degree of the waste that is described. The belief that the hole is, or may be, bottomless, is the crux of the song and serves as a parallel for environmental concerns.  There are those (usually Republicans who ignore science because accommodating big business is better for padding their wallets) who perceive the environment as limitless, much like the hole.  As a result, pollution is rampant in the private sector and is facilitated by legislation.  The narrator takes on the role of antagonist to the environment, stating that he had “been filling [the hole] with garbage” for as long as one “could count”, listing a number of items that are carefully chosen to fit in with environmental themes: kitchen scraps, dead cows, and broken-down tractors.  The kitchen scraps speak to the degree of waste generated by humanity, and how the waste is not recycled and reintroduced into the ecosystem.  When animals eat fruits or vegetables, or even other animals, the scraps, left-over carcasses, and waste are all left on the ground to decompose and return to and replenish the soil, enriching it.  But human waste and scraps are thrown out and are not reintroduced to the ecosystem.  The cow is especially concerning as it speaks to humanity’s murderous treatment of animals.  Though some animals kill other animals in order to survive, humanity often kills in excess and creates artificial environment where animals are cruelly treated, tortured and then slaughtered.  Humanity does not kill because it needs to; it kills because it likes BBQ ribs.  Thetractor process that creates veal, for example, is one of the cruelest things humans do.  This process is not done out of necessity, but rather because people enjoy the taste of veal.  This cow, then, serves as a manifestation of humanity’s carnivorous mentality.  The broken down tractor reinforces the concept of excessive waste.  One might assume that a broken down tractor can be fixed and made useful again, or, if not fixed, at least sold for scrap and recycled.  Neither is done here, and so, that which is not consumed is wasted, be it scraps, carcasses or broken down tractors.

 

The cover art for this album was done by Rennie Sparks, demonstrating again the influence the natural world has on her art.

The cover art for this album was done by Rennie Sparks, demonstrating again the influence the natural world has on her art.

The third stanza continues to employ the inconsistent rhyme which is employed throughout the song.  In poetry, form is often linked with content, and it seems reasonable that Rennie Sparks is very much aware of this.  Rhyme schemes are constructs, much like human constructs that try to define and contain nature.  In some instances they work, in others they do not.  The form of this song is reflective of this, but it is in the third stanza that we first become aware of this as the narrator confesses that as he “stared down in that hole”, his “mind would not let go”.  Clearly whatever constructs have facilitated his progress in life thus far has not equipped him with the ability to understand the natural realm once it has confronted him.  The stanza also sees the narrator introduce his plan to determine the extent of the hole.  He sets up some ropes and a “rusty clawfoot tub”, which he plans on hoisting down the hole in hopes of determining its depth.  The contraption is referred to by the narrator as a ‘chariot’, suggesting some sort of combat, which speaks to the type of the relationship that exists between humanity and nature, at least in humanity’s mind: a combative relationship.
eco-feminismEcofeminist readings have often promoted parallels between the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature, and though such parallels do exists and can offer great insight into the nature of exploitation, this does not absolve women from culpability in crimes against the environment.  This is made apparent in the first line of the fourth stanza as the narrator tells us that his “wife… did help” him and “fed him down the ropes”.  The ‘scientific approach’ which the narrator uses with the hopes of observing the depth of the hole inevitably fails as his ropes come to their end before he reaches the bottom of the hole (if such a bottom exists).  His response is to become consumed by anger and to abandon reason (in the fifth stanza) as he pulls out his knife and cuts the rope, determined to discover if there is a bottom, even if it comes at the cost of his own life.  This is an important parallel mirroring humanity’s approach toward the environment. We are pushing forward with exploitation and consumption of environmental resources with little, if any, restraint. Many seem content to continue with this line of action until irreparable damage is done.  Once such damage is done, humanity will perceive how much the environment can endure, but the answer may come at the expense of human existence.  The approach taken by the narrator is not a logical one, but neither is the approach adopted by many governments and corporations throughout the world.

 

Aside from her masterfully crafted lyrics, Rennie Sparks provides soothingly rhythmic banjo playing to the 'Bottomless Hole'.

Aside from her masterfully crafted lyrics, Rennie Sparks provides soothingly rhythmic banjo playing to the ‘Bottomless Hole’.

The final stanza is the one that speaks most directly to flawed reason.  Anybody who has a basic understanding of philosophy knows that one cannot prove a negative.  This is a principle that most justice systems are based on.  One cannot prove that they did not do something in many instances, so the onus is on the prosecution to prove that something did happen.  Likewise, one cannot prove that something is bottomless;  they can only prove that there is a bottom.  Here, the irony is that the narrator won’t believe that the hole is bottomless until he has proof of a bottom.  This stance  mirrors how many Republicans stand on environmental issues: evidence that does not work in favour of their own conclusions is overlooked.  The Earth, however, is not bottomless, nor does it have limitless resources.  The evidences of its finite capabilities is clear.  Anybody who is even remotely scientifically literate knows this to be true.  Equally troubling in this stanza is narrator’s rhetoric.  He calls the pit “evil”, though it commits no wrong against anybody.  The pit is vilified by the narrator, much as various elements of nature are vilified by people, often culminating in brutal instances of animal cruelty, not only among individuals, but within the meatpacking industry where the practices in many slaughterhouses amount to animal cruelty that should result in criminal charges.  The lack of logic on the part of the narrator demonstrates the absurdity of many of those tasked with creating policy to ensure that the environment is cared for to continue to provide sustenance for future generations.

 

 

Rennie Sparks's 'Bottomless Hole', is on a par with anything produced with the likes of Walt Whitman.

Rennie Sparks’s ‘Bottomless Hole’, is on a par with anything produced with the likes of Walt Whitman.

The lyricism in this poem is frankly on a par with any of the great American poets.  Like the works of Whitman, Frost and Dickinson, this poem is entrenched in the natural world and seeks to tear down the walls put up by humanity and foster a remediation between humanity and the natural world.  Rennie Sparks takes a covert satirical approach which she deftly balances between a free verse style and the constraints of a musical meter that demands form and the expectation of rhyme, weaving an innovative, if not jaded, poetic spirit within the framework of conventional expectations.  The approach may not be viewed as innovative enough for elitist poets who can only seem to embrace esoteric ‘verse’, but the democratic language Rennie Sparks employs is one that offers access to those with or without an honours degree in English literature.  Her criticism of flawed logic and employment of the absurd illuminates the flaws of hardline Republicans who refuse any evidence that does not support their allegiance to big business through the simplistic absurdity of her naïve narrator who seems unaware of the consequences his lifestyle has.  Equally important is Rennie Sparks’s allusions to the formation of identity through tribal and familial ties devoid of history and personal identity.  The work is enigmatic and brooding, while also serving as a sharp satire, and the spirit of the narrator is effectively vocalized by Brett Sparks who lends a human and relatable authenticity to the voice.  This work is an example of what all music, be it country music or music of any genre, should strive to be: a flawless amalgamation of form and content that is a pleasure to listen to and thoughtful enough to warrant a close reading.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this review.  If you enjoy my writing, be sure to browse the site and follow me on Twitter for updates @LiteraryRambler.  Below are the lyrics to Rennie Sparks’s ‘Bottomless Hole’ for those who would like to read them.  The lines have been right-aligned, though this may not be how that author intended the lines to be formatted.

 

 bottomlesshole

Bottomless Hole

 

My name, I don’t remember
Though I hail from Ohio
I had a wife and children
Good tires on my car
What took me from my home
And put me in the Earth
Was the mouth of a deep dark hole
I found behind my barn

We’d been filling it with garbage
As long as you could count
Kitchen scraps and dead cows
Tractors broken down
But never did I hear one thing hit the ground
And slowly I came to fear
That this was a bottomless hole

I went out behind the barn
And stared down in that hole
Late into the evening
My mind would not let go
So I got out my ropes and a rusty clawfoot tub
And I rigged myself a chariot
To ride down in that hole

My wife, she did help me
She fed me down the ropes
And then I sank away
From the surface of this world
When the last rope pulled tight
I had not reached the end
And in anger, I swung there
Down in that dark abyss

So I got out my knife
I told my wife goodbye
I cut loose from the ropes
And fell on down that hole
And still I’m there falling
Down in this evil pit
But until I hit the bottom
I won’t believe it’s bottomless

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Reading this review was like watching someone have anal sex with their own head.

  2. Is that a compliment? I’ll take it as such, because I think I might enjoy watching somebody have anal sex with their own head.

  3. It is depressing to see how an interesting song can be interpreted from a political agenda point of view. I am sorry to say, but this review is high-school level at best, if we analyse only the phrasing and the topic. As for the intepretation of the meaning, it has nothing to do with carbon footprint, environmentalist agenda, republicans or social inequities. It is just a song about a normal men confronted with the unexplainable. An intrusion of mistery into somene’s average life. Then, this is about the very normal reaction of human beings when something defies explanation, and the way this reaction goes beyond reason, pushing the man to risk his life and abandon everything, just to satisfy the most powerful need that exists: the need for meaning.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, though I wish you had invested a little more time in formulating them. Given that you accuse the interpretation of being ‘high-school level at best’, it seems odd that you offer little actual analysis yourself and fail to speak to the content of my argument or debunk anything I said through textual evidence. Your reading does not preclude the reading I offer, nor does it offer a level of reading that even reaches ‘high-school’ status. Your criticism is far from constructive and your ‘insights’ (if you can call them that) are bland and unimaginative at best, and like most people who rely on the anonymity the internet, you are quick to offer insults, but fail to offer any sort of qualification for them. Your interpretation of the song reads like some stoner who spent the night smoking pot and heard the song, only to respond: “Dude, that’s like totally about the meaning of life, man.” Really? You seem to be offering a closed reading and fail to consider the relationship between author and reader as proposed by the likes of Roland Barthes. That said, when I Tweeted the review to the songwriters, the songwriters favorited and re-Tweeted it, which I doubt they would have done had they thought the reading was misleading or unproductive.

    And my stance on the environment is not the least bit political. It is strictly scientific. You seem to reject the reading not because it isn’t valid, but because your own politics inform you that scientific observations are ‘political’ rather than fact and you think that the presence of such ‘politics’ would spoil your simplistic reading of the song. My advice to you is to get over your biases.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I found this to be very engaging. I’m not sure what the resistance is on the part of the other two posters. You root your analysis in the text and consider the implications. GReat work!

  6. I am not interested in writing a similar article to express my point of view in opposition to yours, so you have no reason to complain that i don’t offer any analysis of my own. All i offered is my opinion on your writing, in a blog commentary. Also, there is no “analysis” that can be offered to counter a point of view which is strictly personal: you believe this song to be about environmental problems and build your essay around this idea. You could have chosen any other topic and justify it by interpreting the lyrics in some way: why not search for extraterestial intelligence, african wars or conspiracy theories around the moon landing event. I could choose any of these topics and build my arguments around them by interpreting the lyrics in my favor. The ultimate authority here would be the author himself, who could answer the question: were you thinking about the environment problems when you wrote this song? Or is the “bottomless hole” thing just a metaphor for something else?

    My “high school level” criticism was related to the way you choose to analyse each part of the song. That reminded me of the pointless literary comments we were doing in high-school, when we were ripping apart one verse and writing a full page of meaningless “interpretation” about it, “discovering” meanings that the author, at the time, most surely didn’t even consider. It always amused me to think of what the author himself would have thought if he had seen the “hidden messages” that we were discovering in his writing. I imagined him slapping his forehead and saying “what? no, man! i was just writing about a damn flower in the spring, not doing a psychological introspection on the relationship with my mother who was faced with social inequities”. It was not meant as an insult and you should not be so jumpy about an opinion who does not praise your work. Negative criticism is not “insult”.

    Then again, you are quick to insult also, comparing me to a stoner who just discovered “the meaning of life”. You never bother to consider that the hole in the lyrics might not be just some hole in the ground, and you ironically call my “insights” unimaginative and bland. The irony might be on you, as you jump to talk about carbon footprint, meat industry and animal cruelty. Really, is this what you get from this song? And you call my reading ‘simplistic’. Then, you assume that I am somehow manipulated by “my own politics” into rejecting any scientific facts and studies. Just to clarify this (you can choose to believe it or not), i never did drugs in my life, i followed a technical carreer path, i strongly believe that a scientific study is the basis of any decision (but we might have different opinions on what qualifies as valid scientific study – if not peer reviewed and if it appears on some conspiracy site, it does not qualify). Also, english is not my native language.

  7. You have a straw man argument and a false analogy. You suggest that I might as easily have written about extra terrestrial life instead of the environment and waste, but given that the song takes place on a farm and speaks to waste and natural elements, it is only logical to assume that the song is related to that subject. Thee are no such references to extra terrestrial life.

    You only make excuses for your point of view, you don’t defend it. You simply say: Don’ think. Congratulations, you are one of the countless billions that wants to passively be entertained without thinking. If that is the case, then you have come across the wrong forum.

    You comment are dismissive and lack substance.

    As for ‘insulting you’, I was responding to your tone. If you don’t like it, perhaps you should try being kinder to people.

  8. You are using concepts that you are not familiar with. There is no straw man fallacy in my argument, because I am not criticising your article as if you were writing about extraterrestrials. That would be a straw man fallacy. What I am really doing is to offer an analogy to exemplify how you could have written about anything else and still find the same interpretation that you did. And the analogy was chosen to show that in fact your interpretation has no basis whatsoever. Remember: analogy is not straw man fallacy 🙂

    I never said “don’t think”. On the contrary, I encourage you to think and to leave aside the already-thought slogans. Environment responsibility is a serious topic. That doesn’t make it valid as interpretation for each and every song/poem/book you stumble upon.

    In the end, you may want to analyze a true fallacy, commited by yourself: when you say that your insults are justified by me not being “kinder” to people, you are commiting a fallacy and you are also using a false assumption in the reasoning. The fallacy is “two wrongs don’t make a right”. And the false assumption is that every criticism towards your ideas is in fact an insult. I did not mean to insult you, like you insulted me in your reply. I don’t know you and I could never conclude that you are, for example, “a stoner”. I never discussed your persona, I only offered my opinion on your text. It”s not my fault that the text is poorly written, and definately not my job to cuddle you and your ego. If you don’t want feedback, or if you are only looking for positive feedback, you are free to either close your comment section or to delete the comments which are not in your favor and to write your own appreciative comments 🙂

  9. You use a false analogy, saying that my writing about the environment, which IS present in the song, is the same are writing about aliens, which are NOT present. This is ALSO a strawman argument because you offer an example that is doomed for failure. Your criticisms are not based in reason, they are gibberish.

    You also say that ecocriticism is not a “valid… interpretation for each and every song” I stumble upon. Sure… I agree with that, but where do I say that ecocriticsm is the only reading for every song, book or poem? I don’t. You are putting words into my mouth. I’ve written analysis of a great many books, songs and poems without mentioning ecocriticism, so how is this an issue?

    As to criticizing your insults, that is exactly what I am doing. You made a personal attack, not a criticism. That is an ad hominem. I’m open to a dialogue, but if your idea of a criticism is to throw an insult and not engage with the ideas or offer a criticism of the analysis or potential wholes in the reading, then that is NOT criticism. That is name-calling and insults. If you don’t think you’ve been insulting, try re-reading you comments. you suggests, without any textual support, that I allow a political agenda to sway me reading, and say that the quality of my writing, without offering any examples, was like high-school writing. Was I critical of you? Yes. AFTER you initiated this kind of dialogue, but at least I offer criticism based on what you wrote, where as you offer not analysis whatsoever.

    And you have STILL not spoken to the content of the article. You have in fact spent more time analyzing my responses to you than you have the actual article, and you haven’t done a very good job of that either.

    Before telling people they don’t know what a term means, you should make sure that you actually know what it means before correcting them.

    As for deleting comments, I do not delete for simply disagreeing. I only delete them if they are spam, hateful, or off topic. I encourage an open dialogue.

    I’m not sure what you have going on in your life that submitting anonymous comments online that insult people and throwing around flawed understanding of philosophic terms constitutes a productive use of your time, but I hope your life improves to the point where you find you have better things to do and more constructive way to engage in conversations.

    If your argument is only going to amount to “Your wrong, but I won’t actually engage in the conversation”, then your ‘contribution’ is simply negative noise. I welcome an alternate reading, and believe that every work can be read in multiple ways, that the work is co-authored between the author and the reader and has a different meaning every time it is read. You want to bring in an alternate reading that amounts to something more than “You wrong; it about meaning of life”, then go ahead, if not, try to find more productive things to do with your time, because I’m not going to waste any more of my time on somebody who clearly seems to be trolling the internet looking for an excuse to argue and telling people how wrong they are and how right he is without actually making any sort of sound contribution to the dialogue.

  10. You are right. There are better ways to invest my time that continue with this pointless exchange. You pretend i said something completely different, just so you won’t have to admit that you are using a concept in the wrong context (or, plainly, you don’t know what it means). Your loss, not mine. Feel free to twist the meaning of concepts as long as you like, but don’t pretend to be taken seriously when you do so.

    As for calling me a troll and bringing the discussion to the subject of my life… I don’t presume to create your pshychological profile from the fact that you write essays on your blog in reponse to a criticism, investing time into faulty logic, just to prove that whoever criticises you is some no-life-pothead-troll. It’s your time and your blog, you decide what to do with it and it’s not my place to create your portrait based on those facts alone. Yet, you don’t even know me and you assume that i have some sort of empty life and my only pleasure is to harrass people over the internet. You are attacking someone just for not agreeing with you. If this is the level of your arguments, i rest my case. Yes, your article is great, right to the point, totally about saving mother earth, such clever, much wonder. Ciao!

  11. First off, let me start this by saying I am not ‘attacking’, I am responding. You came here and attacked me. I have responded critically to your commentary. Period. When you shoot the first bullet, don’t go crying that the person who defended their point of view attacked you. It is hypocritical.

    That said, how have I miss applied the false analogy or strawman argument? I’m open to hearing your thoughts? I’m not opposed to CRITICAL contrary thought. I welcome it. But your response is not critical, it is simply contrary. I invited you to offer an analysis that disproved mine and you opted not to. I’d love you hear your existentialist analysis of the lyrics, or disprove what I’ve written, but you have’t done that. You words amount “Your wrong.” And if that’s all you have to say, then there isn’t any point in responding to you.

    As for personal attacks, I haven’t made a psychological make up of you. I’ve simply pointed out that you think the kind of comments you’ve posted are a productive use of your time, which is true since you’ve made the time to write and post them, and that I hope you find better ways to spend your time in future, because what you are doing is not constructive.

    You failed to address points I’ve made in the comments, and you’ve failed to address the analysis directly. So what is the point of what you are saying other than to challenge somebody you don’t agree with but have no reason for not agreeing with?

    I don’t know. I’ve invested myself in a carefully thought out and constructive argument that promotes an important social issue. What have you done?

  12. Rambler I like your style. Personally, I like to analyse gastronomic cellular structures at a high-school level. Oh well, mistery loves company.

    Thanks for your review, it was very insightful, and now the song is ruined for me. JK. Seriously, though, the song held much more personal meaning for me when I watched it play out in my mind’s eye through the lens of substance abuse and addiction. The deep dark hole, which he found out behind the barn, is a thing that he can’t look away from, and in chasing this white whale, abandons and harms his family and himself, without admitting to the harm he’s responsible for.

    Wait, those two interpretations are kinda parallel and similar…

    If you have a minute, can you please give a brief explanation of what you mean by “the relationship between author and reader as proposed by the likes of Roland Barthes?”

    Thanks again.

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