Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke--more commonly known by their stage name of Penny and Sparrow--have no comment on this beginners' guide to coming to know, love, and understand what they mean to the world. Of course, they were never actually asked for a comment. If they were they probably would have been gracious enough to give me something along the lines of “Wow, that’s something you felt the world needed? Cool, we’re grateful that you like us that much."
Instead, though, the decision has been made to set out without contacting them to create (as far as anyone here knows) the first “how-to guide” for listening to this beautiful, inspiring band whose lyrics can change everything from your most personal relationships to the way you pray.
My own introduction to Penny and Sparrow took place on a Saturday night about a year and half ago when a group of roughly twelve fully grown men were packed into an apartment that could comfortably house no more than six adult humans. While we drank bourbon and talked about the finer things in life, my friend suddenly broke out singing:
This led to a multiple hour discussion on the depths of the spiritual life inspired by these two guys, Andy and Kyle. After that night, I did a deep dive, and I found something incredible: this band. Penny and Sparrow have since become a major part of my life through their beautiful, hauntingly challenging music.
All of this, of course, is by way of introduction. This guide will attempt to expose you to some of what makes this band so wonderful and why I have spent hours telling anyone who will listen how wonderful they are. The folk / americana / whatever you want to label them duo, originally formed in Austin, Texas (they met at the University of Texas), have just released their third full-length album to less-than-adequate fanfare (that’s not opinion, it’s fact). The point of this is not to dwell on their background--you can find that information online, if you’d like--but instead to dive into the beauty and depth of their music, the very things that make them worth the repeated listens.
First things first: enjoy this video of the two of them delivering "Honest Wage" (quoted above), a song inspired by the Prodigal Son’s older brother who did not leave home. The refrain captures the heart of the album in verse. Throughout the entirety of their discography, Andy’s primary way of identifying and relating to God is that of the lover. So while it may seem weird at first that this song, written from the perspective of the envious, elder son, and directed to the Father, talks about wanting to kiss God on the mouth, the depth and intimacy of these lines take root when you allow Andy to address God the only way he knows how: affectionately.
It’s a rare thing in life to encounter something completely and utterly unexpected which draws you outside of yourself and helps you to understand your daily existence in a radically new way. "Honest Wage" is a prime example of how these guys, with songs that are incredibly, profoundly human while also containing a spiritual depth usually reserved for writers of centuries gone by, have managed to do that in my life and the lives of many that I know. Music is meant to draw your mind to the beautiful, to something profoundly beyond the ordinary and mundane, to things that we miss on a day-to-day basis. When it’s done well, music draws us into beauty while also helping us to more fully and radically appreciate the daily existence and the human relationships that define our lives.
Take, for example, this gem off their most recent album, where they help us realize that the ordinary things we fill our time and our lives with in place of the Lover are mere idols, while each passing moment poses a choice of whom we serve:
The first disclaimer, before diving into their music, is that this music is slow, methodical, and beautiful. Even though Andy will tell you at his live shows that their concert will simply be one “pop banger” after another, the reality is that this not dance music, but rather music meant for one to simply sit and enjoy.
This leads us to our second disclaimer, then - if you are to get it, you really need to listen. Don’t just listen to the sounds you hear; you truly need to listen to the beauty and the depth behind the voices of these two men. If you let their words really sink in, preferably over a glass of bourbon, then something will happen. You’ll begin to hear their lyrics as your prayers, or as God speaking to you, or as a deep reflection on your own personal relationships that maybe you didn’t even realize you were ready for. "A Woman Caught" captures this perfectly. On the surface, it's a perfectly adequate song about knowing your lover is adulterous. Hear it as God singing to the human soul, on the other hand, and, well, fall on your knees. Here it is mixed with O Holy Night:
The first song these guys ever wrote together, back when they were just messing around with a microphone and a laptop in a college dorm room, is called "Creature." It's their most obvious "we're singing about Jesus" track, but not the best place to start.
Instead, let’s go to their 2014 masterpiece of an album called Struggle Pretty and look at the third song, "Bread and Bleeding". This song houses lyrics like:
It’s a great place to be introduced to what this band is all about. In this song, Andy and Kyle reflect on the ways that we tend to choose to keep something to ourselves in relationships, specifically in relationship to the Lord, the One who deserves it all, and that leaves us exhausted. Instead, in the end, we simply need to come back home, to lay back down, and to realize that in His embrace we’ll be home, because we have nowhere else to go.
After that, maybe take another journey down the story of the Prodigal Son with "Thunder", about the younger son who left, which serves as a sort of prelude to Honest Wage, which we’ve already discussed . In the first, you’ll hear Andy talk about how he thinks the Father must be “tired of his shit”, but then He’s "in the driveway holding him", quick to forgive and embrace the son He loves with and untiring love. After that, shifting gears to the older son, he laments that the Father is not always fair to him like he wishes the Father would be.
When working through their catalogue, it's good to take a break and get to know Andy and Kyle a little bit better. Their catalogue can feel heavy and depressing at times, but personally they are incredibly funny and kind.
Even their covers are the best thing ever:
Next, we can journey to this random stairwell at the University of Texas in which they apparently chose to sing one day. Here, you’ll hear them sing about being a "serial doubter" who refuses to allow themselves to be convinced, then about being in love with someone who refuses to stay true to you but still loving them anyways (a direct analogy to God the Father’s love for each of us), and finally reminding us that, no matter what, the Father simply wants us to come home:
If you’re ready to reflect a little bit on human, intimate love, then it’s time to turn to their song "Duet". I’ll warn you that it’s a little bit, umm, spicy.
I’ve seen Andy and Kyle twice and read a ton of interviews they’ve done, and over and over again they remind us of the same thing: love is only truly love when there’s no escape hatch, when you aren’t leaving yourself a way out. Love is about seeing someone, knowing their worst and most annoying flaws, and choosing to love them - really, passionately, strongly love them - each and every day, not despite those flaws but right in the midst of them.
You can find a version of "Duet" on Spotify with a girl the appropriate verses, but I love this video of them performing it live.
Please enjoy this:
This is a band that deserves hours of investment. Grab a glass of bourbon, pull up on the couch or in a rocking chair on a front porch or something like that, and listen to the music these guys make. There is something really incredible, in a world so inundated with stuff and noise, about artists who are making something truly beautiful and using their gifts to bring others into this shared experience of beauty. That sort of thing is worth sharing, it’s worth experiencing, and it’s worth just having that thing in existence because it is simply good that it exists.
When these two guys write music, it’s all of that; it is good that it exists because the music is good, it’s true, and it’s beautiful. These guys don’t sugarcoat life, they don’t make it seem easy or smooth, but they also don’t downplay the fact that life is awesome and joyful and worth living with passion. Whatever you do, give these lyrics some time; let them sit, ruminate on them, see what sort of revelations you might come to. In the end, the music that these two guys who live in Muscle Shoals, Alabama bring to the world is beautiful, it’s human, and it’s worthing giving some time. It's both scotch and suffering.