At its heart, Shovels & Rope is a vehicle for “storytelling songs, where time and place are important parts of the narrative,” says singer Cary Ann Hearst.
Formed by Hearst and Michael Trent in 2005, for the past two years, the duo has been putting road-worn miles on music inspired by decades of varied musical influences. Although most effectively categorized under the broad Americana umbrella, the Shovels & Rope sound draws not only from South Carolina, which Hearst and Trent now call home, but from roots across Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Colorado.
O’ Be Joyful, Shovels & Rope’s standout 2012 release, is all throwback and vibrancy, equal parts chilling harmonies and rock roots. Recorded mostly in a home studio, the few frills — and fills — were added on the road, with the help of fiddler extraordinaire Amanda Shires.
“We love the Everly Brothers and Elvis — both Costello and Presley,” Hearst says. “Everything influences our sound, but I would say that no one band has more pull than other.”
Standout track “Keeper” is a rock-influenced, grungy, roots tune that is equally appealing to radio airwaves as it is reflective of what’s so intriguing about Shovels & Rope.
The music errs on the side of un-formulaic, while maintaining a connection to some of the most iconic duos in modern music history — think Parsons and Harris, Cash and Carter. Shovels & Rope is pulling into the Lone Star State this weekend, including a stop in Dallas at LaGrange on Sunday, October 28.
Ahead of the band’s trek through Texas, CultureMap caught up with Hearst to talk about life as a folk-rock duo on the road and songwriting in the Southern tradition — and beyond.
CultureMap: The two of you met on the road. Was there an instant musical connection there?
Cary Ann Hearst: We met on tour with Jump Little Children back in the day … in Athens, Georgia. We liked each other’s bands, but the main thing I remember is that Mike’s band had lots of inside jokes, and that they were always laughing and joking around with one another. They seemed like a fun band to be in.
We were starting to tour as a duo, using each other as a side man promoting our solo records. It occurred to us that if we consolidated our material and arranged the songs for two people, we could tour efficiently and economically. We made the decision after leaving a show in Birmingham.
CM: You’re part of what seems to be a burgeoning scene of male/female duos in the Americana arena.
CAH: It does seem like there is a resurgence the male/female acts, and it seems like a mighty fine time to be a folk singer again (thank goodness!). But I’d say we are part of a tradition that has not really waned in nearly a century. AP and Sarah Carter, Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton, Gram [Parsons] and Emmy Lou [Harris], the White Stripes — duos are always around. Folks seem to notice more these days, though.
“I like the way Southern people tell a story, and I like the cadence of their speech,” Hearst says. “That stuff informs my song writing.”
CM: Do you draw parallels between your music and those sounds?
CAH: I think folks can draw some parallels easily enough. Harmonies, guitars and basic drums. I would like to think there is something special that makes us unique; the unique spirit of it, I hope, supercedes the parallels just enough. Otherwise, I guess we’re just a plain old folk-rock band, same as any other.
CAH: We love the Everly Brothers and Elvis — both Costello and Presley. Everything influences our sound, but I would say that no one band has more pull than other.
CM: What other bands (duos or not) influence your writing and sound?
The last record was as inspired by the Felice Brothers as it was George Jones and The Kinks, but Michael might argue that none of those guys influenced this specific record; he would say it was Townes Van Zandt or Dave Dondero. Although we work beautifully together, we are rarely stealing from the same artists — at least not at the same time.
CM: There’s this extremely dark mystique that accompanies most of your songs. Is it a product of the two of you working together?
CAH: The longer we are on the road together the darker we get. Kidding! We are as happy-go-lucky as two people can be, but our minds do take us to dark places. Life is dark, so we harvest plenty of macabre subject matter. Life is also joyful and buoyant, and I would say there is plenty of happy on O’ Be Joyful.
CM: Your music is steeped in Southern references and tradition. Does that come from your South Carolina roots or is it more from musical references?
CAH: My lyrical aesthetic is distinctly Southern. I have lived in Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina with plenty of windshield time in Georgia and Alabama. I like the way Southern people tell a story, and I like the cadence of their speech. That stuff informs my song writing.
Michael is a great storyteller, but his writing voice is not exclusively Southern at all. In fact, I would go so far to say that Michael can capture those references but is not as beholden to them as I am.
CM: Who takes the “writing reigns,” so to speak?
CAH: We wrote about 33 percent of the songs together, but Michael spearheaded the recording process. He’s very smart with arrangements and a good hack about most instruments, so we have him to thank for the sound and soul of the album.