Shovels & Rope partners Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst were wrestling with how they should answer some of their daughter Louisiana’s questions. At three, she’s quickly grown into an inquisitive child — who now has a baby brother — and wanted to know more about some of the popular (and frequently gruesome) fairytales every kid hears.
“It’s like, Rapunzel has been kidnapped right at the beginning, as a little tiny baby, and locked in a tower,” says Trent, from the duo’s home base in Charleston, South Carolina, where they recently hosted their High Water Festival. “As our little girl gets a little older — she’s only 3 and a half, but she understands a little bit more. You look at her face when you say that, all the questions [she asks], like ‘Well, why?'”
“Why would anybody do that?” chimes in Hearst.
“Why would somebody take somebody away from their mommy and daddy?” Trent says again. “It definitely stirs up some hardcore emotions as parents.”
The obvious real-world parallel here is the separation of families at the U.S. – Mexico border, a Donald Trump immigration policy that sparked outrage and horror in 2018 and continues to have significant reverberations today. A slightly fictionalized version of that humanitarian crisis serves as the backdrop of “C’Mon Utah,” a track from Shovels & Rope’s new album By Blood: the story centers on a man disconnected from his family by a border wall and the magical horse that returns him home. The pair wrote the song before detainment and separation began dominating the national discourse, but it began to take on a life of its own once people in the audience began to hear it.
“We were out there playing it before it was recorded or anything like that,” says Trent. “We played it all across America and it goes over better in some places than it does in other places. Nobody’s for parents and children being separated from each other, really. Right now, it’s hard to see hope — and maybe that song resonated with people. As simple as this magic horse is, it’s just a little bit of a symbol of hope.”
Family is a recurring theme on By Blood, as the title suggests, but it’s also an ever-present fact for the couple, who have been making music together since 2008 and now have two young children on the road with them. The title track is at once inspiring and unnerving, jarring and comforting. With production that joins fingerstyle acoustic guitar with the gloomy, cavernous atmosphere of early 4AD albums, Trent and Hearst sing of unbreakable bonds and of claustrophobic closeness.
“We’re all just trying to be supportive of each other and keep everything going and learn together,” says Trent. “Then we would all go out on the road and tour together — it’s really sweet but it felt really complicated.”
“You might not be the best parent in the world, but if you’re a good parent and you’re worried about being a better parent, you’re already ahead of the game,” says Hearst.” “At least you care about whether you’re shortchanging your kid here and there.”
Familial dependence pops up again in the exhausted travelers’ tale “Carry Me Home,” which boasts a massive production that borrows the chords from Tommy James & the Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover” (“We only rip from the best!” quips Hearst) to accompany Trent and Hearst’s harmonized shouts. Similarly, the rest of By Blood retains much of the wild energy of the duo’s earlier records, but harnesses it or even expands it into something larger and fuller. Their narratives spring to life in vivid fashion, as with the main characters of “The Wire” or “Mississippi Nothing” and their frustrated attempts to change course. Trent and Hearst also apply their Mad Max aesthetic to more traditional song forms, like the fiddle-heavy work song “Hammer,” or the walking R&B rhythm of “Twisted Sisters.”
“It’s more of a big, cinematic-sounding record,” says Trent. “We weren’t afraid to add as much stuff as we wanted whenever to any song and then slowly scrape it away and see what worked and what didn’t work. If there ever were rules for us, there were zero rules on this record.”
When Little Seeds came out in 2016, Shovels & Rope were grappling with racist violence in Charleston, family struggles and the death of a close friend, all of which bled into the music and made for heavy listening. This time around, there’s a more hopeful atmosphere, but one that doesn’t gloss over the daunting task of raising a family or the struggle to be a better human.
“Since Little Seeds, there’s two children in our lives, and we’ve had some loss as well,” says Trent, “but I feel like it’s easier to see some of the hope at this point, just where we are, sitting on our porch this morning.”
Later in 2019, Trent and Hearst will incorporate the story from “C’Mon Utah” into an children’s book by the same name (and featuring illustrations by Julio Cotto Rivera), with the thinking that it might help parents struggling to answer some of their kids’ questions. And as complicated as it can be, as a married couple who work together and take children on the road, it’s also likely the best reason stay focused on the bright side.
“Basically you have to make the best world you can for your children, in the everyday moments of life,” says Hearst. “If you focus on all the awful stuff in the world you might as well just not have ’em, because life is brutal and it is just gonna be all that. Yeah, they slow you down — in a good way — and make you really live in the moment and find happiness in little things.”