For Cary Ann Hearst of the dark and raucous duo, Shovels & Rope, the first sign she and now husband Michael Trent created powerful music together was a cover of a Ramones tune.
“For me, there’s a recording of us singing “Judy is a Punk,” a Ramones song in, like, trucker country style. We showed it to all our friends. Check this out, man,’ she says.
If you’ve heard Shovels & Rope’s intense and critically-acclaimed debut, “O’ Be Joyful,” where they tread the winding path from Johnny and June to Jack and Meg, that’s not a shock.
The disc made them the big winners, along with Emmylou Harris, at the Americana Music Awards. They won for best emerging artist and also beat labelmates, The Lumineers, for Song of the Year with “Birmingham,“ the semi-autobiographical story of how they became Shovels & Rope after successful careers solo and with other bands, agreeing to marry their artistic pursuits during a three-hour ride from Nashville to Birmingham.
The song propelled their album onto many best-of lists and earned them opening slots for Hayes Carll, Butch Walker, The Felice Brothers, and Justin Townes Earle. Now, they’ll be headlining theaters this fall supporting their superb sophomore effort, “Swimmin’ Time,” released this week. They play at Town Point Park on the evening of Sept. 13 as part of the ETC Festival.
Getting together – and deciding to play as a duo, abandoning their solo careers, wasn’t easy. “It was a series of circumstances,” Trent says. “We had both been working on our own personal things for so long that at the very beginning it seemed scary to throw those things in the garbage and start from scratch,” Trent says. “It takes a long time to get something going even though we were getting real opportunities to tour with other acts. But if we were trying to do that individually, we would never see each other and that would be a drag.”
Trent jokes that joining together doubled the time they could play because each brought their solo catalog. “If we were trying to do this individually, we would never see each other and that would be a drag,” he adds.
One way to chart their success is to track their transportation. For a long time, for hundreds of performances, it was just the two of them and their dog, Townes van Zandt, traveling the country in a van, often sleeping on the queen mattress in back, parked in a strip lot or at a park. They moved up to an RV, which they’re now selling, and most recently to a tour bus. The van, though, remains at home, the “engine light always on,” Trent cracks, their home, no matter what, something they’ll keep just in case.
Yes, they’re successful, but it took them a long time to embrace it. Before our interview, they were at Utah’s Lake Powell, wakeboarding and hiking Hole in the Rock in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “Five days in the Utah desert,” Hearst says. “No phone. No Internet. Lots of sunburn.”
Kicking back got her to thinking things may be looking up for them. “It only occurred to me yesterday that this was working out really great,” she says, laughing. “I think this thing is going do to ok. We’ll see.”
On “Birmingham” they outlined their minimalist plan:
When the road got rough and the wheels all broke
Couldn’t take more then we could tow
Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope
With two old guitars like a shovel and a rope
They have always made music as a duo and success won’t change that. Hearst says it’s been challenging working up some of the studio songs as a duo (they trade off on guitars and a beat-up, salvaged drum kit with keys attached).
The first single off “Swimmin’ Time’ is “The Devil Is All Around,” a redemption song about making changes in your life that’s surprisingly uplifting. “It’s the idea you can redeem yourself at any particular time,” she adds. Their voices merge for the verses, singing:
I’m going down the long road, maybe it’s the wrong road
Either way I’ve got to find my way back home again
And it’s too late to turn back now, gotta get the lead on out
Gotta find some way to make it right, oh
Another song of overcoming, “After the Storm,” is a slow burn worthy of Patsy Cline before Cary breaks the quiet with passionate wail of “Won’t you help me to get through it? I’ve been flailing like a child.”
“Evil,” Trent says, is the song of two misunderstood people. “Stono River Blues” makes a sideways reference to the 1739 Stono slave rebellion in the midst of some wailing Neil Young guitar work. For comic relief, there’s “Fish Assassin,” a Louisiana stomp about a day on the river. “Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan” is a meandering narrative of two meandering souls finding a life together done, of course, with their trademark wink and smile.
They recorded most of the album at home on St. John’s Island in Charleston, just the two of them with a friend supplying some horn parts. Trent handled the producer’s chores. “We feel like we can get the end result without having another person in the room,” he adds. “Sometimes that can dilute what you’re doing. With just us, we’re free to be as creative as we want and make the record however we want. We don’t have somebody standing over our shoulders telling us to change anything. I feel like it’s the most honest way to make a record for us.”
The duo opened for Old Crow Medicine Show during late August. They will be back on the road themselves in September, playing the new record to new and old fans. Hearst admits she found herself falling for the disc when she got a promotional copy this summer.
“We lived with it so intimately we kind of put it to bed for awhile,” she says of “Swimmin’ Time.” “I got the first promotional copy of it and I was driving around listening to it as if it wasn’t mine and just taking it for a ride and I really enjoyed it.
“I was raised you don’t listen to your own records and you don’t rest on your laurels. You should never think anything you’ve recorded is the greatest damn thing in the world. That’s the way our mind works,” she adds, “But you have to give yourself credit. I really think our songs have this wonderful spectrum on this record. The tough stuff is really tough. The dark stuff is really dark. But the hopeful places are really shining through with hope. It’s excitable in that it’s primitive.”