Cary Ann Hearst is sitting on a couch in the lounge area of the Hutton Hotel bar in Nashville in two pigtail braids, misting her throat with the contents of a little white bottle that, at one point, had apparently been inside one of Jason Isbell's mucous membranes.
"I'm keepin' it greased," says the female half of Shovels & Rope, her twangy rasp even more fuzzed-out due to an impending case of laryngitis — though she still says the word "greased" like she's dishing out biscuits at a meat-and-three. Last night's midnight gig at local record store Grimey's has left her voice a little ragged, so she's been religiously spraying Entertainer's Secret toward the bull's-eye of her tonsils. Hearst's friend and Isbell's guitarist, Sadler Vaden, pillaged the Southeastern singer's stash of the aloe-based elixir. "I think you're supposed to shoot it up your nose, too, and I am sure this has been in Jason's nose. And I don't care!" Hearst says.
"Slime that throat!" eggs on her husband and bandmate Michael Trent, seated next to her in a velour chair with his feet up, wearing all black and periodically chewing on a toothpick. It's not surprising, really, that Hearst has lost her voice — she'd admit to being the talker in the duo, prone to stories and flamboyant metaphors. At one point, she likens their music to a Tootsie Pop (tasty candy live show outside, chewy songwriting in the middle); in another, a sailboat.
"You're the rudder, keeping us on track," she would say to Trent, looking him straight in the eye before cracking into laugher. "And I'm the sail because I'm full of hot air."
It's a thick, humid day the afternoon before their third album, Swimmin' Time, is released, and Hearst and Trent, in his-and-hers flip-flops and t-shirts, don't exactly present themselves as the glamorous rock stars and actors that often inhabit the Hutton's luxurious penthouse (Gwyneth Paltrow stayed here when she filmed Country Strong). And, for the record, they're actually crashing at a much cheaper option across the street while they do some interviews and play the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. The bottle of Entertainer's Secret, packaged to look like it's wearing a tiny tuxedo, is about the most formal of anyone here. Because Shovels & Rope are anything but formal.
"We love what we do, but when we're not out playing music we'd rather be mowing the grass," says Trent. The couple recently purchased a ride-on lawnmower for the expansive yard at their home in Johns Island, South Carolina, where they live with their dog, Townes, and recorded and produced Swimmin' Time in what they call "Home Studio Number 3." With little but the two of them and some borrowed equipment from Electric Lady Studios, they sang lip-to-lip around a microphone.
But even with their general down-home existence, it's hard to deny that Shovels & Rope have been growing at a lightning-fast pace — playing The Late Show With David Letterman, winning Song of the Year at the 2013 Americana Music Honors & Awards, landing their second LP, O' Be Joyful, on the Billboard 200 (at Number 123). Their success has even forced them to trade their dear RV for a proper touring coach. So far, it's been good — their dog likes the space, the beds are comfortable and there's room enough for a nice panini machine to make sense of all those on-the-road cold cuts. But that's where it ends.
"We can't turn into dicks," Hearst says, wedging her foot underneath Trent's thigh. "We promised each other that we would walk away from this in a heartbeat if it compromised our relationship. I don't want to be miserable and divorced like that 'Luckenbach, Texas' song,'" she adds, not before singing a few lines from the Waylon Jennings hit in hoarse delivery: "this successful life we're livin'/got us feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys." But there's no feuding these days, no plans to ditch the business and relocate to southeast Texas or go "back to the basics" as the song says. Going back to the basics (in love and music) is what propels Shovels & Rope in the first place.
Still, with a sound that fuses the rhythmic scrappiness and renegade spirit of punk rock with the narrative content and porch-pickin' bones of American roots — and a bit of blues thrown in for good measure — it's hard to picture where Shovels & Rope would have fit in 10 or 15 years ago. But in 2012 (when they released O' Be Joyful), in a market increasingly enamored with "Americana," it was the perfect environment for a record that conjured up old ghosts inhabiting contemporary bodies. They helped define Americana, and Americana helped define them. In some ways, Shovels & Rope are as über-modern as EDM — this is music, with all of its old-time roots, that could really only exist in the here and now.
"We do blend rock & roll and country and blues and folk and gospel," Hearst says, sipping a glass of water through a cocktail straw. She and Trent are fine with their status as Americana darlings. It might not have been the genre they'd have chosen, but it suits them. "So what the hell else are you going to call it? It's like, if American musical traditions are a river, and we're drinkin' from that river, then that’s what it is." It's another metaphor for Hearst, and delivered in her conversational cadence, it's not too dissimilar from Shovels & Rope's quirky offbeats.
Shovels & Rope was never meant to be an enduring thing — even now, they still refer to it as a "project." Trent and Hearst both performed in separate bands before they tried to write a song together, and neither grew up exactly worshipping country music. Trent was raised in Denver and Hearst in Nashville, and they both were "snotty punk-rock kids" who liked Dinosaur Jr. and the Violent Femmes — though Trent's father and Hearst's stepdad were both bluegrass musicians, they shirked a rootsier upbringing in favor of the Lollapalooza crowd.
"Cary Ann was always extra sweet and motherly to us neighborhood hippie kids growing up in [Nashville's] Sylvan Park," says Cory Younts of Old Crow Medicine Show, who was friends with Hearst since 14 and whose band Shovels & Rope has opened for recently. "The first time we met, we got lost with a mutual friend in downtown Nashville. She kept reassuring me everything was going to be alright."
Hearst left Nashville when she was 18 to go to the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and it was there she ditched the Doc Martens and grunge in favor of paisley and fringe. "When I left Nashville I realized I was a Tennessean living amongst low country people," she says. "I found myself sentimentally listening to country music and bluegrass and I got obsessed, and started a country band called Borrowed Angels. I reclaimed my Nashville identity as a part of defining who I was as an adult."
Meanwhile, Trent was busy fronting pop-rock band the Films, living in New York for a stint while he flirted with the edge of major-label stardom. "I came around to country music a bit later on," he says. "But I liked the dark stories and dark storytelling songs like Townes Van Zandt's. That was the first time that I was like, 'I get this. I really like this.'"
In 2002, both Hearst and Trent's bands were on the bill opening up for baroque-poppers Jump Little Children at a bar called Fluids (in the Shovels & Rope song "Birmingham," which details the band's genesis, they changed the name to "Comatose" because it sounded "cooler"). Trent moved to South Carolina a year later, they started dating and began work on their respective solo careers, but it wasn't until 2008 that they would grab a 12-pack of beer and compose a tune together. The result was "Boxcar," which became a track on 2008's Shovels & Rope, billed as being by Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. The song — with dual vocals, a ramshackle drumbeat and vivid lyrics less about sappy love trials and more about a mischievous duo fleeing the law — laid the groundwork for Shovels & Rope's future.
Their songwriting evolved, and so did their relationship: Trent popped the question at Red Rocks Park in Morrison, Colorado, a place whose legendary amphitheater the duo would perform at this summer with the Avett Brothers.
"I was grouchy," Hearst says, "and we were poor. It was Christmastime, and we couldn't get the kind of presents like we wanted to. We went up to Red Rocks and I was like, 'Why you takin' me up here, I just want to go home,' and it was really beautiful, covered in snow. He asked me to marry him and I said yes."
She pauses. "It got real adventuresome after that."
They married a year and a half later, in a vineyard outside Charleston — it rained, and Hearst's dress ended up covered in mud. But, in pure Shovels & Rope style, a little messiness was something to embrace, not bemoan. "It was so much fun," Hearst says. "They had to make four beer runs to the Piggly Wiggly 25 miles away."
Both Trent and Hearst put out solo albums in 2010 that allowed them a bit of momentum. Trent's The Winner explored his evolving singer-songwriter side, and Hearst's Lions and Lambs had some breakout success with exposure on an episode of True Blood. They took both records on the road, in addition to Shovels & Rope, when they opened for acts like Hayes Carll, Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz as a duo. Neither had ever really contemplated the whole idea of being a "family band," but as their recognition grew, and opportunities came, the idea of permanence set in.
"We said, 'Let's go for it,'" Hearst recalls. "We didn't want to be apart anyway, so let's put all our eggs in this basket for a couple of years. And then, it was, 'Well, we better make a record that sounds like Shovels & Rope after touring all this time.'" The result was O' Be Joyful, their first release on label Dualtone, who signed them without even hearing the LP — they had seen Shovels & Rope play live, and that was enough.
The stage is where their pure, magnetic draw comes through: swapping instruments, singing from the deepest parts of their guts, favoring emotion over perfection, with the two lovers often just a kiss away from the microphone. Hearst and Trent don't pre-determine who will play what on a particular song – it often unfolds impulsively. While other bands might seek to perform to an audience capturing it all for YouTube on their iPhones, Shovels & Rope focus on something they see as missing in today's over-rehearsed environment: spontaneity.
"If somebody's going to pay money to come see you perform, then it should be something to see," Trent says. "Instead of just making everything sound like the record and nothing else." It's part of the reason they've kept Shovels & Rope as a two-person project. "But there's also potential for things to go wrong."
"And they do!" adds Hearst, laughing, her throat getting increasingly hoarse. "It happens at the expense of the paying public. People think we're gazing romantically in each other's eyes, but I'm really just waiting for the change. Michael likes to catch me sleeping on the job."
"I do have to keep you in check," he interjects, smiling.
But behind the mythology of their live performance lies something deeper: an approach to songwriting that's built less on confessional drudgery and more on narrative tales. Which is where the Tootsie Pop metaphor comes in. Shovels & Rope don't write traditional love songs, which is something one might expect a band of marrieds to do. Instead, their work is external. This is evident on Swimmin' Time, a record that holds its breath and dives under water into stories of addicts clinging on for dear life, sinking submarines and a "Fish Assassin" slaying dinner by the creek. It conjures images, unfolding with each beat of the kick-drum or swipe of the harmonica, as much as sounds.
"I think it does the listener a lot of good to have a song that is not about somebody, but everybody," Hearst says.
"Their songs are incredible," says Justin Townes Earle, on his once opening act. "The sound is crushing and no two have ever been more suited for each other. Together they put on shows that are hard to follow. Sweet Southern charm wielded like a weapon."
And though they insist Shovels & Rope will probably always exist in some capacity, it's still a project — meaning it can be paused. Trent thinks a lot about using his hands, making artisanal frames. Hearst would like to have a "career that mirrors Emmylou Harris'," as a duet singer, "if I ever get my voice back," and maybe have a baby or two.
"I am definitely interested in pimping out my husband to produce records so that I can stay home and be a mom for a little while," she says.
"We'll have kids and start complaining about each other," she laughs after another spritz of Entertainer's Secret, looking at her husband and free-associating in an ascending melody. "The songs will be like, 'Selfish brat whom I love more than life itself!' or 'You don't help around the house!' Passive Aggressive Lullabies, by Shovels & Rope."
Sounds like something straight out of Luckenbach, Texas.