Shovels and Rope is the rock and roll-roots duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, two Charleston, South Carolina-based songwriters who never meant to be in a band together.
Though there is reportedly a documentary film in the works called The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, the song “Birmingham” might also qualify for that title.
“Delta Mama and a Nickajack Man raised their Cumberland daughters in a Tennessee band,” sings Hearst in the opening line. Hearst is one of those Cumberland daughters, and in the song she moves to South Carolina and meets the “Rockamount Cowboy” (that’d be Trent) in Athens, Georgia.
At the time, Trent was playing with a Colorado-based indie rock band called The Films, whose songs like “It’s Christmas (What’s the Difference)” and 2009 album Oh, Scorpio owe something to Elvis Costello’s brand of punky New Wave. Needless to say, it’s more of a black leather jacket and Aviators affair than Shovels and Rope’s cowboy boots and flannel digs.
“The Films were salty and sexy and fun rock and roll,” explains Hearst on the phone from Atlanta one afternoon. But after two records, Trent’s band broke up and he and Hearst started playing bars together in Charleston, which boasts a collaborative music scene.
“We started doing little recordings together like Ramones songs for kicks. That’s what kind of spawned the whole thing,” Trent says. “We never meant to be in a band together, we each had our own thing.” (Hearst and Trent have each released two solo albums.)
In 2008, the pair put out their first album, Shovels & Rope, a rootsy conceptual record populated with murder ballads and Old West lawlessness. They spent most of last year on the road, supporting artists like Hayes Carll and Justin Townes Earle, and their sound began taking shape.
“It started with two guitars, then we put a mic on the floor to stomp, and eventually added kick and snare drums,” says Trent. They learned how to play drums onstage, he says, as an experiment and a way to keep things interesting. Throughout last year, they recorded their second album, O’ Be Joyful, at their home in Charleston and in hotels on the road, using just one microphone. It’s an accomplished record, containing huge swaths of each of their personalities.
Trent’s contributions are often lyrical, poetic, and sometimes dark. He says he likes songwriters who take on characters and perspectives distinct from their own. On the other hand, Hearst plays more of a folksy storyteller, full of hooks and one-liners. “Tell New York, tell Tennessee/ Come to Carolina and ya’ drinks on me,” she sings on the old-timey “Kemba’s Got The Cabbage Moth Blues,” which she says was inspired by Alan and John Lomax’s 1920s recordings of singers on Johns Island, South Carolina.
“Cary came from a country music background and is a fantastic country singer,” says Trent. “But she’s a rock and roller at heart. She loves The Stooges. We’re a little bit different but I couldn’t quite tell you how. We’re inspired by the same things but it just comes out in different ways.”
“I swear I have at least one good song idea a day,” declares Hearst. “But if I don’t get pen to paper in ten seconds it’s gone forever.”
Hearst says Trent is prolific but needs a few days of downtime in order to write. “He’ll come up with 20 ideas. And then he’ll flesh out three of ‘em at a time – he likes to work in threes. He’ll have this beautiful melody and every now and then I’ll hear him playing it in sound-check. And I’m always looking over his shoulder ‘cause he’s writing something in his pad. We get a little competitive,” she says, laughing.
O’ Be Joyful might just be the story of one long year on the road – writing songs together, learning to blend their styles together, learning to be a family. (Hearst and Trent were married in 2009.)
“I think what happens to musicians when they start touring is they start writing about the road and places they’ve been,” says Hearst. Songs become geographical as a way to put down little anchors along the way as reference points. “You wake up in a different city every day. You don’t even know where you are in the morning.”
“There’s been a lot of joy out here. Michael’s my very best friend. Being in a band with the most important person in your life is a pretty amazing thing.”
“I have this image of when I’m an old lady – of us when we were young, full of piss and vinegar … living this easily romanticized life.”
But until then, we’ll have to wait to see how the ballad of Shovels and Rope ends.