“There’s not a person walking this world that doesn’t have some suffering that they’re burdened by,” says Cary Ann Hearst, who, with her husband Michael Trent, make up the country folk duo Shovels & Rope.
And damned if every single one of those people hasn’t stumbled into the various songs on “Swimmin’ Time,” Shovel & Rope’s searing new album, out now.
The collection features tunes about down-on-their-luck folks who seek the higher road, but that shot at salvation sometimes seems just out of reach. On twangy “The Devil Is All Around,” a person drenched in fear travels down a path. He’s a “shell of a man,” but determined to become a better one. On the stomping, ominous title track, there’s nothing good coming around the bend. On swampy dark “Evil,” a tune HitFix premiered in July, two misfits, a young tomboy and an older man, find each other. Of course, there’s a murder ballad or two. The literate tales are made all the more vivid by the way Hearst and Trent’s voices wrap around each other as they spin their stories over largely acoustic instrumentation.
So where do these characters come from? In some cases, they’re drawn from real life. Hearst admits to “an annoyingly happy childhood,” but has a “family history that is weighty and complicated and overburdened with a disproportionate amount of sorrow,” she says. “A lot of people in our family struggle, whether it’s self sabotage or substance abuse.”
The pair’s writing is also greatly influenced by classic American authors ranging from Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck to their fellow Southerners Flannery O’ Connor and William Faulkner, with whom they share a knack for painting full characters in a few words. “We’ve always been drawn to stories with dark twists,” says Trent. “We were listening to ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ on tour. Driving from the west coast to the east coast, we would make our way through the book.”
Like most acts, Shovels & Rope had their share of romantic songs, but it was when the duo began writing about experiences beyond themselves that they found their first real traces of success. “I’m not trying to brag, but when we started writing together and our content moved away from self-selective and waxing romantic to looking out from ourselves and looking at other people’s big stories, things changed,” Hearst says. “Michael is especially good at that: he’s able to reduce a really big complicated emotional story into a 3-to-5 minute narrative that is really colorful.”
While keeping their head down and touring relentlessly behind 2012’s breakthrough album, “O’ Be Joyful,” their compelling craft caught the attention from their peers and heroes alike. Their tune, “Birmingham,” from “Joyful” won Song of the Year at the 2013 Americana Music Awards, where the act also won Emerging Artist of the Year. Jack White asked the duo to open three shows for him and word has even come back to them that Martin Scorsese is a fan. “We’re just a couple of ragamuffins doing our thing, and there was this trajectory going on outside of our periphery,” Trent says.
Indeed, though the couple has now traded up from a van that carried only themselves and their dog, Townes, (“He’s hairy medicine,” Trent says) to a bus that they share with their small crew, they admit that they operate, happily so, in their own “bubble.” They create their music totally free of label interference, their band is just the two of them, and alone together is their natural state. “Last night, Michael was hanging out at the motorcycle garage and his absence was like a black hole,” Hearst says. “You’d think I couldn’t wait for him to get out of here, but his absence was weighty. We don’t know anything different than being together. Ever since we got married, we’ve been on the road and never looked back.”
Natuarlly, Hearst and Trent recorded “Swimmin’ Time,” a darker and more intense album than “‘O, Be Joyful,” alone at their home studio in Charleston, S.C. “There’s no pressure. The clock isn’t running,” Trent says. “We can make our own schedule.”
If there’s a downside to their increasing fame, it’s that their own schedule doesn’t allow for reading as much as it once did, but they still manage to sneak in some time for the classics. Hearst jokes that they may have a surprise for their fans with their next project given the author whose works have been keeping them company lately. “We got distorted by [“Game of Thrones” author] George R.R. Martin,” she says. “Our next album will be nothing but dragons.”