Two hearts, one beat: The love-tinged fury of Shovels and Rope

Musical couple Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent make their home on the road as Shovels and Rope.

Fueled by the passion of young love, the wanderlust of the open road and the thrill of chasing the rock ‘n’ roll dream, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent spend their days covering the highways of America in a Winnebago. At night the married couple takes the stage as Shovels and Rope and delivers raucous, stripped-down country punk anthems that are huge on hair-raising harmonies and light on instrumentation.

Many songs just feature Hearst on an acoustic guitar and Trent on a no-frills drum kit that was salvaged from a junkyard. Despite the intimate arrangements, the duo’s sound never lacks in size—thanks to raw intensity and vocal chemistry that delivers instant sing-along fever.

“There’s a big group of musicians back in Charleston that we’d love to play with,” said Hearst, when asked about the set up. “But we wouldn’t be able to call that Shovels and Rope. This is a two-person family band.”

In fact, when they first emerged from the South Carolina coastal city back in 2010, Trent and Hearst were still juggling work with their own respective bands. They were only informally writing songs together for fun and started playing small gigs at Charleston bars. Crowd support soon made it apparent they were on to something.

“Our bar gigs started to get popular in Charleston, and suddenly people were more interested in what we were doing as a duo than what we were doing with our bigger bands,” Hearst added. “We decided to put all of our eggs in one basket.”

Interest started to spread and industry friends started calling. Soon the band was on the road opening for a range of Americana heavyweights like Justin Townes Earle, Hayes Carll and Jason Isbell.

During a long year on the road, the band made a debut album, O’ Be Joyful, which was released just a few months ago. It’s laced with the vintage, dusty, romantic connection of forebear musical couples like Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris, but there’s also a rebellious underground grit that overshadows the lingering hints of country traditionalism.

Much of the album was pieced together on the road between tour stops, and as Trent put it, “some interesting scenery added to the overall taste of the record.”

One particular memory is an organ solo being tracked in the back of the van on Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Synthetic bass on the album-opening “Birmingham” was recorded at a Red Roof Inn. That song, which loosely details the couple’s music scene flirtation and eventual union, is a rowdy foot-stomper with a key line: “It ain’t what you got, it’s what you make.”

It’s how Hearst and Trent prefer to approach the music—bringing in new instruments only as fast as they can learn them, and making it up as they go along.

“When we started playing gigs without the intention of being a band, we would bring in whatever we could find,” said Trent. “That minimalist approach has always proved really inspiring for us. It feels the less there is to worry about, the more creative we get and are able to arrange something in a different way.”


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Shovels and Rope

The Southern Café and Music Hall/November 14