It’s a hot afternoon in Nashville, one of those late September scorchers where summer is clinging to the city by its fingernails, but Shovels & Rope are bundling up in a chilly conference room. Cary Ann Hearst dons a denim jacket covered in a variety of patches (there’s a Lucero one on the left shoulder), while Michael Trent produces a plaid flannel shirt from his backpack. Just outside this room in a large, open garage, the husband-and-wife duo’s live gear is being set up so they can begin rehearsing the songs from their newly released album Little Seeds.
Hearst and Trent are coming off a busy week during the annual Americana Music Festival, having juggled a slew of family visitors (Hearst’s family lives down Interstate 24 in Chattanooga) and meetings all week long, culminating in a ferocious late-night set after Margo Price at the Nashville Palace. Thankfully, their one-year-old daughter Louisana Jean, who travels on the road, keeps them from getting too distracted by things that don’t fit the big picture – like reading online comment threads or engaging in 24/7 social-media consumption.
“It takes your mind off all the stuff that’s really not that important in the grand scheme,” says Trent. “The bullshit fades away a little bit when you’re hanging out with your kid.”
“Once you have a baby, really, it’s like the furthest thing from your mind,” agrees Hearst. “What else is going on? You’re like, ‘I love my job, I’m gonna go do my awesome job and then I’m gonna come home and I’m gonna take care of my baby and have fun with my family and try to get some rest.'”
Hearst swivels her chair in the conference room so that she’s facing Trent for most of the interview, communicating with him nonverbally. As a married couple who record and perform together, their relationship is simultaneously inspiring and intimidating – the kind of audacious feat most mortals wouldn’t dare attempt, much less pull off so successfully. That love runs deep on Little Seeds, along with the overwhelming fear of raising a child in a violent world and the specter of death, splashed across the sonic canvas with their most experimental touches to date.
The duo’s adventurous side has been a steady feature of their work since 2012’s O Be Joyful made its debut, following a handful of solo releases from Trent and Hearst (as well as Trent’s time in indie-rock band the Films). The collection found its way to a devoted cohort of fans in the Americana world, where it stood out for its mix of country-tinged songwriting and raw, D.I.Y. sensibility. This see-what-happens approach led to them making some offbeat production choices, like using the live stage announcement as the lead-in to the whimsically titled “Kamba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues,” in addition to the fuzzy guitar textures and jazzy horn fills they poured into the scuzzy blues of “Hail Hail” and the off-kilter narrative of their road-weary origin story “Birmingham.”
The follow-up Swimmin’ Time continued this practice, incorporating the nasty electronic textures of their micro Korg keyboard – typically played by whichever one of them sits at the drums – on the gospel-flecked “Evil” and New Orleans-style dirge “Ohio.” On the ghostly, apocalyptic title track and the “Oh! Darling”-referencing “Coping Mechanism,” they add more instruments to the mix than the two of them can possibly play live. They admit to considering beforehand how they’ll be able to play a new song onstage, but not in a way that will dictate how it’s presented on record.
“We kind of forgave ourselves of that responsibility a long time ago,” says Hearst. “‘Cause our records wouldn’t be as dynamic or we wouldn’t have the freedom that we want. If you’re a regular ol’ band you can just get as many people as you can afford to put up there to make sure it’s exactly the same. That’s not something that’s ever gonna be available to us.”
“On our last two [albums] we had a bunch of brass on a couple songs,” says Trent. “I’m glad that it’s on the record like that but we’re not gonna be able to pull it off live unless we are in a town where some of our horn player friends are gonna show up and jump up onstage. For live, we find some new, different instrument to play that subs out for the horn line and then it’s a whole new version of the song.”
That urge to tinker is unusual in the Americana circles that have embraced them, where emphasis tends to be heaped on songwriting voice and organic instrumentation in a way that usually stops the most bizarre ideas at the door. Hearst and Trent’s tendency to ignore those constraints places them in closer proximity to some corners of indie rock, where noise, texture and left-of-center production choices are to be celebrated on equal footing with the individualistic voice of songwriting. But the pair’s harmonized vocal arrangements, narrative songs and folk melodies always keeps them tethered to country traditions, even as they take delight in turning those traditions slightly sideways.
“We definitely try to not keep it in a certain box,” says Trent. “We’re not going for a certain sound, we just like to be creative with how we put records together and how we present the live show. It happens that we can sing pretty good harmony together and maybe that’s the more Americana part of us, or that we try to tell a good story with the songs.”
On Little Seeds, the pair burrows even deeper into experimentation, intrepidly addressing real-world concerns along with a new spate of their signature freewheeling narratives. The most obvious example of this is “BWYR,” a droning spoken-word piece that they composed and recorded in the wake of the horrifying church shooting in their adopted hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, and the staggering number of racially-motivated police shootings across the country. “Black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red / Let’s all get together and share the dread,” they listlessly intone, with ominous echoes and whispers lurking in the shadows around them.
“All our friends were texting us saying, ‘I love you, I wish you guys were here. I wish we could put our arms around you,'” recalls Trent of learning about the massacre at Emanuel AME church. “I feel like that was just sort of a response of our community grieving. It was just words on a page. It wasn’t like hey, we’re writing a song about this. It was just, it started out to be just like an emotional purge, pen on paper.”
At this point they aren’t certain if they’ll attempt to perform the song live. They’re aware that it’s an important message to put out there – one that they’d like people to hear and consider – but it also flies in the face of feel-good, rock & roll escapism and stands a good chance of shifting the momentum in their normally blistering concerts.
“Hard-working people have come from their busy lives and their personal struggles and victories to come to your show,” says Hearst, “and they want to drink a few beers and they want to kick their feet up and relax and rock & roll and have a catharsis and go home. And start the battle for good all over again.”
Whatever they decide, they’ll still have their hands full performing some of the new songs on Little Seeds. Album opener “I Know” sends up scenester in-fighting, teeming with wall-to-wall Jesus and Mary Chain-style guitar distortion and squealing feedback, while “Buffalo Nickel” bathes a heavily overdriven electric guitar in reverb as the two trade barbs about working so closely together. On “The Last Hawk,” they recall JAMC’s quiet Stoned and Dethroned era to pay tribute to the Band’s Garth Hudson, while “Botched Execution” spins a wild narrative about an escaped convict who has bodies piling up around him.
Even when Shovels & Rope stick closer to traditional folk and country instrumentation, the songs veer off in surprising ways. Their signature harmonies shift constantly, never quite repeating any passage the same way, and the narratives enthrall with striking details. “St. Anne’s Parade” recalls escaping a northeast blizzard for a rainy New Orleans wedding, smoking cigarettes on a front porch and rejoicing in friendship and community. In “Mourning Song,” they sing about loss by depicting a widow’s life and memories, but having the departed sing to her from beyond. Trent wrote it as he was thinking about his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s and how his mother would cope when he’s gone.
“That one was the hardest one. Michael brought that idea to the song pile and very much, mostly completed,” says Hearst, who added her own take on her father-in-law’s illness with “Invisible Man,” a hard-driving number that recalls the manic energy of the White Stripes. “It was really intense to listen to him working through what are basically his fears and anxieties about his mother being left alone. It was real raw.”
The album closes with “This Ride,” which weaves in all the sorrow and joy they’ve experienced in the last couple years, noting what a bitter, hard thing life experience can be even as it offers hope and victory. “It stretches and it breathes and it is lonely and long,” they sing, plaintive strings rising to complement their guitar strums. Trent composed the tune while dealing with the anticipation of his daughter’s arrival and the devastating wallop of his father’s diagnosis.
“It was written a little bit before and a little bit after the baby came,” he says. “It was anxiety and also joy and grieving a little bit about the situation that’s going on with my folks. There was just a lot of life all happening right in our faces.”
Leading into “This Ride” is a characteristic experimental track called “Eric’s Birthday,” where guitar strums, looped handclaps and a humming accordion underpin a woman telling a story about giving birth in a police car. The voice belongs to the mother of Eric Brantley, a Charleston musician and friend to Hearst and Trent whose murder rocked them as they were working on the album. Trent recorded the speech at Brantley’s memorial, held one sunny day on an island off the South Carolina coast and – after obtaining permission to include it – used it as a storytelling device to set up the final song.
“We had taken a barge out to go have a private memorial for him,” he says. “It’s a really great moment that happened, the way that he came into the world and everything. Everybody was laughing through their tears. It’s this thing we can all share together, us and our tight little community, a way to honor him.”
It’s decisions like these, reaching beyond guitars, drums, bass and vocals to incorporate the studio itself as a space to explore and complement their songwriting, that make Shovels & Rope such a distinctive force in roots music. Most songwriters would reasonably be expected to discuss the myriad highs and lows they’ve witnessed in the last two years, but Trent and Hearst do it in a way that enriches the stories and, in the process, challenges the arbitrary (but accepted) ideas about authenticity in Americana.
“Why can’t we be folk singers who have crazy distortion on their guitars and it’s still folk music?” says Hearst. “Because the way music changes, it’s dynamic. That’s the real authenticity of folk music, is that it’s yours to do with whatever you want.”
With their boundless recording process and sort-it-out-later attitude toward songwriting, Shovels & Ropes’ experiments continue to yield fascinating results. Just don’t expect them to read about it in the comments section.