Bless This Home: Shovels & Rope settle down on tour
By Bryan C. Reed
It might be true, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, that you can’t go home again; it’s certainly been said enough since. It might also be misleading. You can, it seems, bring home with you.
Shovels & Rope, the married pair of songwriters Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, have been no strangers to the road. Hearst hails originally from Tennessee; Trent from Colorado. Both settled, eventually, in Charleston, S.C., of which Hearst says, “It’s kind of like living in paradise. When we come home, I cannot believe this is where we live.” Both have toured plenty, too, in their separate solo guises, and in Trent’s case, as a member of the Warner Bros.-signed The Films.
“We’ve both been sort of doing it for a long time up to this point,” Trent begins, before his wife interjects: “Long enough to know better!” she laughs.
Trent continues, “We definitely know what we’re getting ourselves into, but we spend all of our time together anyway, so it’s pretty natural. We just bring our dog out on the road. Home is where your dog is, I guess.”
These days, they spend about 200 days a year crisscrossing the country in a 24-foot Winnebago. “[It] really keeps our lifestyle to an acceptable level for two people in their 30s who are married and want to live a nice, long, healthy life,” Hearst says. “I’m not sure if we’re smarter because every extra penny we’ve made, pretty much, is in our transportation, but we certainly are happier and healthier for it.”
O’ Be Joyful, their formal debut as Shovels & Rope the band, was released July 31. Hearst and Trent had a show in Oregon on the album’s release date, and Hearst bought herself a faux-leather jacket at H&M to celebrate. “It’s like we’ve been waiting for this day to come for so long, and we’re super enthusiastic about it,” she says. “But in some ways it’s just another working day, except extra-busy.”
In other words, business as usual for the nomadic pair, who have spent the past year on a near-endless tour, supporting a succession of more established acts: Hayes Carll, the Felice Brothers, Justin Townes Earle and Butch Walker. “We had some opportunities we couldn’t really pass up,” Trent says. “We just decided to stay out there and dig in on the road and try to capitalize, I guess.”
Four years ago, when Hearst and Trent started playing together, their intentions weren’t nearly so ambitious. Trent had moved back to Charleston after a stint in New York. Warner Bros. had dropped The Films, and Trent was sick of living in small spaces in a city he’d had enough of. The band was breaking up, so Trent packed his bags.
When he came back to Charleston, he reconnected with Hearst, who he’d met when The Films and Cary Ann Hearst both opened a tour for Jump, Little Children. The duo started playing local bars, filling three- or four-hour sets with songs taken from Hearst’s and Trent’s solo catalogs, and a few from The Films’. “We put a new spin on it using a few instruments and a lot of singing together and harmonies,” Trent says. “That was the very first moments of how we figured out how to play together, and how this band might end up sounding.”
The chemistry was there. Hearst and Trent married in 2009. They’d begun touring together, but as separate acts. Hearst would headline one night, and Trent the next. Each played sideman for the other. The turning point for Shovels & Rope, the band, came in 2010 at a gig in Birmingham, Ala., opening for Deer Tick and J. Roddy Walston & The Business. “The poster was like, “Deer Tick! J. Roddy Walston! Cary Ann Hearst! And Michael Trent!” It didn’t look like we were one thing,” Hearst remembers. “We felt like one thing, and we knew that we were going to be with each other anyway, so we left that show we were just like, ‘We should just be a band.’” That night, they became one.
“It took a while for it to actually become a priority,” Trent admits. “We weren’t too sure what we were gonna do. Personally, after having had the experience with being on a major label and not being in control of anything that you do, and then if you ever do break free you’re not going to make any money anyway. I was all about taking the DIY approach as much as we could with everything. That way you don’t ever owe anybody any money and nobody ever tells you what to do.” With some help from the Vulcan Army booking agency, Shovels & Rope hit the road hard through 2011, but found some time to write and record O’ Be Joyful by piecemealing the process at home, in the van, and in motel rooms across the country. Friends stopped in to add horns and fiddle here and there, but it’s largely reflective of the duo’s instrument-swapping, eclectic live shows.
Songs like “Hail Hail” or the title track bristle with blues-rock energy, adding horn blasts and rollicking banjo to undercut the staid rock-duo sound. There are country weepers, like “This Means War,” which make full use of Trent’s weary tenor, sounding a bit like Elvis Perkins in its slow, aching melody. With Hearst at the front, the band benefits from her brash twang, reminiscent of Loretta Lynn or rockabilly icon Wanda Jackson. That contrast makes their harmonies, which are frequent on O’ Be Joyful, a tense, compelling sound, never too pretty or too harsh. And with both singing and picking up instruments as they see fit, Shovels & Rope has developed a stylistic breadth well beyond the country-rock basics.
“I feel like there’s a small window where all the ideas sort of happen at once, and after that window closes, it’s just overdoing it or overthinking it,” Trent says of the pair’s freewheeling sound. “I guess a lot of it’s instincts, and not setting out for it to sound like anything in particular.”
One needn’t hear much to recognize the wanderlust in Shovels & Rope, though. “Birmingham,” which opens the album, serves as autobiography and summary at once. Fittingly, for the well-traveled duo, its lyrics cite not only its titular city, but also the Mississippi Delta; Nickajack, the Civil War-era neutral zone between Alabama and Tennessee; the Cumberland River; Tennessee; the Carolinas; the Rocky Mountains; Athens, Ga.; New York City and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; the Crescent City; and the Great Salt Lake.
A similar regional specificity runs through Shovels & Rope’s music, though it crosses regions freely. There’s is no “back home” for Shovels & Rope; home, one supposes, is everywhere.