MICHAEL TRENT AND CARY ANN HEARST joined forces as the duo Shovels & Rope after having pursued separate careers that earned each of them some good reviews, but not much in the way of commercial success.
So the couple (they married in 2009 before teaming up musically) didn’t carry any grand dreams of platinum albums, arena tours and armloads of Grammys in starting Shovels & Rope.
But after just one album, 2012’s O’ Be Joyful, Shovels & Rope has already exceeded anything Trent and Hearst accomplished separately. That album—which followed a 2008 album that was titled Shovels & Rope, but was billed as a Cary Ann Hearst/Michael Trent release and is not officially considered part of the Shovels & Rope catalog—earned the duo rave reviews and acclaim.
The duo topped off its run behind O’ Be Joyful last fall with a pair of American Music Awards for Song of the Year (for the autobiographical romp “Birmingham”) and Emerging Artist of the Year.
To be sure, Trent and Hearst aren’t getting the Beyonce/Rihanna/Lady Gaga treatment, where their faces get plastered across tabloid pages and TMZ.com. But the media attention has put a spotlight on Shovels & Rope that Trent and Hearst never anticipated. So far, Hearst feels she and her husband have done a good job keeping things in perspective.
“It’s definitely taken a little getting used to,” Hearst said in a recent phone interview when asked about the exposure that has followed the arrival of O’ Be Joyful. “I’m grateful that we’re maybe a little older and wiser, that we’ve been able to navigate pretty well and insulate ourselves from a lot of the attention. The attention from our fans is always welcome and wonderful. It’s a funny thing. Attention can be a little bit of a loaded weapon. I think if you get used to getting attention and then one day the attention goes away it can really mess with your mind.
“I don’t want to use the phrase we take it with a grain of salt, but we don’t buy into any of our own hype, that’s for sure,” she said. “I don’t know any way to really express it. But it’s also exciting that we’re performing every night on tour and connecting with people, not over fashion and not over television, just over music and the spirit of kind of getting together and getting down.”
Trent and Hearst may well encounter more media adoration—and possibly greater popularity—now that their second album as Shovels & Rope, Swimmin’ Time, has been released. It debuted following its Aug. 26 release at number 20 on Billboard magazine’s all-genre Top 200 album chart.
If anything, the new album presents a bit bigger, bolder and even more musically compelling version of Shovels & Rope.
A few songs are heavier than anything on O’ Be Joyful, including the stomping “Evil,” the horn-filled “Ohio” and the title track. “After The Storm,” on the other hand, employs a gentler touch than usual, which suits the song’s winsome vocal. “Coping Mechanism” brings a poppier sound into the mix. But other songs, such as “Bridge On Fire,” “The Devil Is All Around” and “Stone River Blues” fit the template of O’ Be Joyful, boasting engaging melodies, a strong rhythmic backbone and a healthy bit of twang.
Trent and Hearst met in 2002, and their personal relationship blossomed before they decided to officially unite musically as Shovels & Rope.
Hearst released her first solo CD, Dust and Bones, in 2006 and followed that with a 2010 EP, Are You Ready To Die, and a second full-length, Lions And Lambs, in 2011.
Trent had gotten into music during high school, forming a band called the Films. That group, whose rock/pop sound was frequently compared to Elvis Costello, made two albums, but broke up after its 2009 release, “Oh, Scorpio.” He had also made a pair of solo albums—a self-titled effort in 2007 and The Winner in 2010.
In the midst of that came the Shovels & Rope album and a decision to play some shows as a duo just for fun. Their shows were spontaneous, with Hearst and Trent switching off on guitars, drums, harmonicas and other instruments, frequently testing the limits of what their four hands and feet would allow them to play. Their lively personalities and their spirited—sometimes rowdy—approach to their rootsy blend of country, bluegrass, rock and blues—started catching on.
Trent and Hearst realized they were making more of a go out of being a duo than they had been as solo artists, and their efforts turned toward expanding their touring base beyond their home town of Charleston, S.C. and seeing where they could take Shovels & Rope.
Trent and Hearst have kept Shovels & Rope largely a do-it-yourself project when it comes to the songwriting and music. They still tour as a duo with no additional musicians. And in the studio, they continue to self produce their albums.
O’ Be Joyful was something of a catch-as-catch-can project. In addition to some recording at their home, Trent and Hearst also recorded much of the album on tour, using motel rooms and even their van to do some of the recording. Swimmin’ Time was a bit more settled, at least logistically.
The couple built a new studio facility in their home and the new album was recorded there. They didn’t go nuts with instrumentation, but added new elements to the mix, including piano, organ and some unique low-end tones created on a special keyboard setup. But Swimmin’ Time remained a spontaneous endeavor, with a good chunk of the material captured in first takes just as the duo was getting a handle on how to play the songs.
“We let the songs dictate where we wanted to go with them as we recorded them,” said Trent, who joined Hearst for the phone interview. “It’s kind of, we never really like go in with this grand plan. Like a lot of bands will make demos. I used to do it all the time. I would make a demo and then work it all up and write all of these parts for it, and then that would just be the way it has to be. Then you go in and try to record it, and you can’t get out of your own box.
“I feel like there’s something that happens that’s very special when it’s the first time you record a song,” he said. “So we just try to go in when it’s fresh and lay it down and get all of the ideas and inspirations right then as it comes and lay it down instead of having to go back and re-do it later on or over-thinking it or anything like that. That’s sort of proven to work best for us.”
One goal Trent and Hearst did have for Swimmin’ Time was to capture the energy and force of a live Shovels & Rope show—something that should help the new songs translate well to the stage.
“Last time [for O’ Be Joyful], we weren’t really thinking about it,” Trent said. “The songs were new and we also hadn’t really been touring [for long] and we were still sort of figuring ourselves out, which we’ll probably always be doing. But for this one, it was just, I feel like the live energy is matched a little bit more on the recording.”