Musical couples usually come in a few different garden varieties. There are the too-good-to-be-true, ready-made packages — Sonny and Cher or Ike and Tina. The fleeting couplings of convenience — Richard and Linda Thompson or Jack and Meg White. And then the deeper creative marriages that, for better or for worse, consume both parties — John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, who make up the Charleston, S.C., duo Shovels & Rope, operate on their own wavelength, however. They were both musicians in their own right before meeting in 2003; their 2008 album Shovels & Rope was actually credited to their individual names, and they both released solo albums in the years thereafter. Both admit they didn’t think their joint venture would lead to much more than making a few bucks playing Charleston bars while they fell in love with each other and chased their respective folk/roots/rock/goth and country dreams.
Hearst’s irresistible voice, which flits with ease from honey-dipped drawl to down-and-out howl, fit so naturally with Trent’s soothing pipes, though, that the two quickly realized they were onto something special. After gaining confidence playing in local venues, they outfitted a cargo van with a queen bed and a TV, assembled a drum kit from cast-off pieces and hit the open road of America hard — lovable hound dog Townes Van Zandt in tow, of course.
Playing nearly 200 shows a year in 2011, Shovels & Rope alternated between opening for bigger acts like Justin Townes Earle, Dawes and Jack White and “headlining” at every dive bar and honky-tonk they could find in between.
“We spent a good bit of time in the lowest dregs of a rock ‘n’ roll touring life,” Hearst says with a charming laugh. The hard work paid off, though, as their time on the road produced an irreplaceable chemistry, a devoted following and the 2012 album O’ Be Joyful.
The superb mix of outlaw country, indie folk and Delta soul was entirely self-recorded and produced — and the success it engendered allowed Hearst and Trent to move up to a sleek Winnebago mini-RV.
“We’ve got a hold of the bull pretty good now that we can expect people at our shows,” Hearst says. “We do have anxiety about different things than we used to. Like having more people to disappoint. It used to be, ‘Oh my God, is anybody going to show up?’ Didn’t matter if we disappointed anybody. Now it’s, ‘Oh my God, look at all these people! Are we going to be any good?’ “
Listen to the rootsy groove of “Birmingham,” the rapid-fire stomp of “Kemba” and the intimate harmonies of “Shank Hill,” and you’ll get it. Not only do Hearst and Trent sound like heaven singing and picking together, they represent a truer salt-of-the-earth Southern Gothic atmosphere than all the Lumineers, Mumfords and Avetts of the world combined. “That’s pretty natural for us,” Trent says. “It’s more about what we see and what we know. A lot of the songs are stories about characters we’ve made up, but we set them in places we’re familiar with. I guess we stick to the backdrops that we know.”
It makes sense, then, that Shovels & Rope’s forthcoming 2014 record — which they recorded at home before they set off on a four-week tour of the Southeast, with a Feb. 13 show at Jack Rabbits — was written almost entirely on the road.
“We wrote some songs together and some separately,” Trent says. “Pretty much the same game as before.” Hearst adds that the band’s thematic templates — tender ballads, debauched romps and dark-underbelly jams — continue to represent a mash-up of life and art, as well. “Even if the narrative songs are wholly fictional, there’s always somebody in our life that plants the seed,” she says. “But all the really self-loathing stuff — the quit-being-such-an-asshole songs — that’s generally autobiographical. Kinda us talking ourselves into trying to be better people.” o