Shovels & Rope is a Charleston, South Carolina-based duo consisting of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. They perform as an energetic two-piece band, stirring up a righteous racket with two old guitars, a handful of harmonicas, the occasional keyboard, and a junkyard drum kit harvested from an actual garbage heap and adorned with tambourines, flowers and kitchen rags.
The songs are the deadliest arrows in this bands quiver. Raw and imagined, effortless and insightful, the pair’s panoramic songwriting and raucous performances drive Shovels & Rope’s newest release O’ Be Joyful. Recorded in the twosome’s house, backyard and van, as well as various motel rooms across America, the 11-song set offers a compelling encapsulation of Hearst and Trent’s unique approach, channeling their creative chemistry.
Since 2010, Shovels & Rope has been traveling the highways and back roads of North America, logging hundreds of shows and performing for crowds large and small. On stage, Hearst and Trent trade vocals and switch instruments in an instinctive, organic manner that’s simultaneously loose and tight, driving their compositions home with a resonant mix of pensive introspection and celebratory passion. In 2011 alone, they were invited to tour with a wide array of acts including Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, the Felice Brothers, Hayes Carll and Butch Walker, and have accumulated a fiercely loyal fan base along the way, building an audience the old-fashioned way.
Mississippi-born, Nashville-bred Cary Ann Hearst and Coloradan by way of Texas Michael Trent had each accumulated a good deal of musical experience prior to their current partnership. By 2005, they were both residing in the unsung musical mecca of Charleston, SC, and began informally making music together. “I would show up at CA’s house with a twelve pack and we’d make recordings of Ramones songs.” Michael says. “The next day we’d check it out and say ‘hey!.. not bad.” In 2008, the pair teamed up to record an embryonic album under their individual names. They titled that project Shovels & Rope, in acknowledgement of its high concentration of murder ballads in which many of the characters ended up burying their secrets with shovels or hanging from ropes.
Subsequently, Hearst and Trent – who had both released solo albums and were also in other bands at the time – began performing low-key local gigs as a duo. That impromptu collaboration soon proved to be as efficient as it was inspired. They decided to take their act on the road.
“The whole thing was an accident,” Michael admits. “We never meant to become a band; we were just playing in bars to make some money. It just sort of evolved out of necessity, and out of the tools we had lying around at the time. We used to put a mic on the floor for foot stomping and both play guitar, or one of us would play a tambourine or harmonica or both. One day our friend Jack gave us a kick drum he found in a garbage heap outside of his apartment. Neither of us knew how to play the drums (still don’t) but we tried it in the show anyway and it started to become a part of the band. After we felt like we were getting the hang of it, we borrowed a snare from another friend which we have yet to return (sorry Jamie). The way we perform live has always been somewhat of an experiment, teetering on the edge of complete disaster. It keeps us on our toes and keeps the show fresh for both us and the audience.”
“We adopted the concept of Creatio Ex Nihilo, which is the idea of creating something out of nothing,” Cary Ann adds. “That kind of became our mantra.”
Hearst and Trent recorded much of O’ Be Joyful at home in 2011 during the rare downtime between touring jaunts. Additional tracking took place during their travels. The synthetic bass on the record’s opening track “Birmingham” was recorded next to the sink at a Red Roof Inn near New Haven, CT. The organ solo on “Shank Hill St”. was tracked in the van at approximately 70 mph somewhere on I-10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. And while sharing a bill in Louisville, KY, the electric Amanda Shires was wrangled into the duo’s van to add fiddle parts to “Keeper” and “This Means War” in between soundcheck and showtime.
While Hearst and Trent are both songwriters individually, O’ Be Joyful finds them still discovering new strengths as a collaborative unit. “The songs on this album,” Michael points out, “are the most we’ve ever written together. Many of them were birthed on the road. One of us would come up with a verse and say, ‘I’m gonna drive for awhile, why don’t you try to put a chorus on this?’ And then we’d switch… kind of like our shows.”