Specializing in a uniquely stripped-down style, Shovels & Rope, the multi-instrumental duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, have been cranking out a soulful, harmony-driven mix of old-time country, blues and vintage rock ’n’ roll over the last three years like two troubadours on a rampage.
In support of their 2012 smash success “O’ Be Joyful” and last year’s acclaimed follow-up “Swimmin’ Time,” both released on the indie Dualtone Records label, the Charleston-based husband-and-wife act have toured heavily around the U.S., U.K. and Europe at a nearly non-stop pace.
“The last few years have been like climbing a long, sloping ramp,” Michael Trent tells Charleston Scene, speaking from Washington last weekend where the duo was scheduled to perform as part of an all-star celebration of Americana songstress Emmylou Harris’s career.
“We really haven’t had that much of a chance to reflect on what’s been happening because things are moving constantly. The holidays have been the longest break we’ve had since we started this whole thing,” Trent says. “We’ve got so much coming up that we’re just trying to keep our heads down, stay ahead of the curve, continue to write and make music, and get ready for the next tour. We’ll reflect when we get there.”
This week, after their brief break over the holidays, Trent and Hearst will be back home in the Lowcountry, ready to kick off a winter tour with a concert at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Saturday night. It’s their first headlining show in town since playing the Charleston Music Hall last winter.
“We’ve just wanted to stay out there and work as hard as we could and get it while the gettin’ was good, you know?” Cary Ann Hearst says.
Shovels & Rope first took shape as a musical act during the late 2000s when Trent and Hearst started casually collaborating as a duo, often with a rotation of local guests.
In the mid-2000s, each had already performed as members of serious bands and as solo singer-songwriters. As an electric guitarist and vocalist, Trent, a native of Colorado, had several years of full-band experience with alt-rock combo the Films among other pop/rock projects.
Meanwhile, Hearst, a Nashville, Tenn., native, had established herself in town as a versatile solo singer-songwriter with a set of melodic original songs and a catalog of old-school country, blues and gospel, as well as rock standards and obscurities.
Booking gigs at tiny spots around town, Trent and Hearst first started using the band name Shovels & Rope in early 2010, not too long after they wed. The moniker referred to the title of a loosely recorded indie release they collaborated on in 2009, a low-fi, dynamic, reverb-heavy demo with impressive arrangements and strong harmonies.
The initial Shovels & Rope recording sessions reflected Trent’s burgeoning studio production skills, both as a solo songsmith and as a part of a collective of local players they called the Shrimp Records Family. The Shrimp gang was a group of like-minded musicians who worked well together on stage and in studios. The roster included Owen Beverly, Joel Hamilton, Sadler Vaden, Bill Carson and other Charleston-based talents.
“There was collective effort going on all the time,” Hearst remembers. “We all had different resources that we could tap, and Michael has a certain kind of taste in the studio, which is really palatable to me and others.”
By 2012, Trent and Hearst were ready to track their first official full-length album. Recording tunes on their own gear at home and on the road, they compiled their strongest material that summer for release on the Dualtone label.
The mostly country-styled “O’ Be Joyful” caught the attention of critics and fans alike. Major music publications, radio stations and festival promoters took notice. So did a small team of indie filmmakers: Jace Freeman, Sean Clark and Paul Bannister of the Nashville-based production company Moving Picture Boys.
Freeman, Clark and Bannister documented Hearst and Trent through their step-by-step recording process of “O’ Be Joyful,” and they followed the duo on the road through the end of 2013, as well. The resulting documentary, “The Ballad of Shovels & Rope,” embraced the story of Trent and Hearst as a couple and as a band. It hit the national film festival circuit last fall and officially came out on DVD in December.
“It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time,” Hearst says of the documentary with a laugh. “We’ve seen it a few times, and we love it. It’s real life, and everything that’s in there is true. It is scary to see yourself on the screen like that though. We love talking about what we’re doing out there, but we don’t love talking about our personal lives.
“Having a camera in your face does change the way you act a bit, but we went from having those guys follow us around for three months to making it a three-year project,” she adds. “We got really close with those guys, and we knew that they would make a loving documentary. I know that when we look back at this in 20 years or longer, we’ll be so grateful. What a gift.”
With major momentum from successful headlining and co-billed tours in 2012 and ’13, including slots at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Hangout, Sasquatch!, Stagecoach and the Newport Folk Festival, Shovels & Rope concentrated on recording 13 new songs at their home studio on Johns Island for release last year.
Carefully textured, fuller in sound and darker in tone, “Swimmin’ Time” demonstrated the duo’s strengths: rich, emotive harmonies; poetically Southern lyrical notions; sophisticated arrangements; and sparse-yet-powerful instrumentation.
“When we were making the last record, we did it with the awareness that we would be performing the songs as a two-piece band,” Trent says. “We didn’t want to make something that would sound completely different on stage, something we couldn’t match live. I mean, I knew we couldn’t bring a full New Orleans horn section on stage with us every time, but we arranged things so that the song could work well on any stage. I also think it’s cool for people who know the album to show up wondering how we might pull things off.”
Comprised of twangy rockers, soaring ballads and eerie detours, “Swimmin’ Time” made an impressive splash, debuting at No. 20 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and reaching top spots on Americana Radio, Rock and Independent charts through the summer and fall.
“We weren’t trying to make a particular kind of record, but we knew early on that there would be some evolution,” Trent stated upon the album’s release. “There are all kinds of dark undertones, but there are other colors, too. Every song kind of played off, and built on, the ones that came before, so they fit together really well.”
Since the album’s release last summer, Shovels & Rope have pushed ahead with enthusiastic determination, performing on major radio programs, small club stages, large outdoor concerts and high-capacity music halls.
“We definitely have adjusted the show a bit,” Trent says. “I’m proud and glad that we haven’t really skipped any steps along the way, as far as growth in each market. It’s like we’ve played the smallest place in each market, and then the second smallest place, and on from there. The medium dive and then the bigger dive, and the larger rooms. It’s been sort of a slow growth,” he says.
“These large, thousand-seater shows just can’t be quite as intimate when there are that many people in the room. The banter between the songs can’t even be heard. Some of it gets lost. So we simply focus on the arrangements, how to make the music, and how to be a two-piece rock band. I’m not really afraid of the fact there’s just the two of us because I know we can put out a lot of sound in a big theater.”
Hearst and Trent headed back to New York last weekend to prepare for their second performance on CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” which aired on Tuesday. They made their first appearance on the show last January, playing the hit song “Birmingham” from their “O’ Be Joyful” album. A cheerful Letterman introduced Shovels & Rope as “a talented folk duo.”
Hearst handled the lead vocal and acoustic guitar. Trent harmonized and kept the beat on a small drum kit (bass drum, tambourine, maraca, snare, and cymbal), adding a bit of harmonica.
“We were told by several people to expect the Letterman show to be serious and formal, and that he probably would not introduce himself and talk with us or anything, but he actually came over before our performance and was really super nice to us,” Trent remembers of their first Letterman gig.
“That show was one of the most stressful of the ‘O Be Joyful’ tour because we’d never been on TV before and we didn’t know what to expect,” Hearst adds. “Everybody told us that it would be a tough show to do, because it was super tight and super pro. When we played (TBS’s) ‘Conan’ show last fall, it had a little more relaxed vibe in the way it was produced. I understood what to expect from TV people a little better at that one.”
Beyond Letterman, Shovels & Rope’s forthcoming road trip will meander through the Southeast out to Texas and back. It’s the first of several major outings of 2015 for the twosome. Tours of Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the domestic summer music festival circuit are on the horizon.
This Saturday, however, will certainly be a standout event for Trent and Hearst: an increasingly rare family reunion/homecoming experience for the couple.
“A hometown show is a hometown show,” Hearst says. “For me, I’m excited to look out at the audience and see plenty of people who are showing up for the first time alongside a lot of people I’ve waited tables on (during her time as a server at Jestine’s Kitchen), everybody we ever played for at the Pour House, and everybody who ever had a dog in our fight, so to speak. I know we’ll feel the love from them coming to see us, and hopefully they’ll feel the love from us for them.
“Our career has been built on the road, but that started with playing in town for years,” she adds.
“I’m no great drummer but learned what I learned on the drums in front of everybody at those Monday shows at the Pour House deck stage. People saw us when we played badly, and people also saw us when we played great. They saw us become who we are. At the core of it, we belong to the people of Charleston, and we approach it as a special thing. It’s been an intimate relationship for years.”