MUSIC BOX: You bring the Shovel, I’ll bring the Rope

By on November 11, 2014
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Shark Week. PHOTO: CHRIS HAVENER

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – When they were throwing back a beer in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Tin Roof in 2010, Shovels & Rope was not yet the chosen band name for Cary Ann Hearst’s project with Michael Trent, now her husband. This name that the pair had given their first collaborative album together in 2008 would become their blue collar, down-home moniker.

In retrospect, hanging out at the Tin Roof was apropos. The ramshackle dive bar where Hearst and Trent played some of their first shows together is an important landmark in the Shovels & Rope backstory. The venue even got some screen time in the video accompanying their Americana Song of the Year, “Birmingham,” from the breakout album O’ Be Joyful. The duo would also win Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2013 Americana Awards, followed by an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.

Fortunately for Jackson, Shovels & Rope is arguably and artistically at its peak. With the summer release of Swimmin’ Time (which debuted at No. 123 on the Billboard 200) also came a mainstream media onslaught that reminds me of The Avett Brothers’ coming-out party. Let’s assume it’s for these reasons, ultimately, that their publicist cancelled two scheduled interviews on short notice with yours truly (“they had a rough day,” “they are sensitive and fragile artists,” “their time is limited and they don’t do many interviews so we would be lucky to get them”). Luckily for all of the parties involved, this writer is still not fazed. Shovels & Rope is making some of the most raucously beautiful, sincere music of a generation, and doing it on their own terms — an indie band home run success story.

“We’re just a couple of ragamuffins doing our thing, and there was this trajectory going on outside of our periphery,” Trent told HitFix in September.

For more than a decade, separately and together, Trent and Hearst had paralleled the trials and tribulations of most DIY touring bands, with a no frills, in-the-trenches balance of songwriting, performing, driving (and sleeping in) their own van and working all ends of the business.

The opening line from Hearst’s 2009 solo album, Lions & Lambs, admits the unglamorous growing of thick skin that an aspiring songwriter deals with: “How much fight have you got in you/How much shit are you willing to wade through when the hardest thing is the only thing you do.”

“You’re sweaty, you just laid it all out there, and then you have to jump down and open up the merch box,” Trent told Nashville Scene of the old days. “We would have to divide and conquer, even though there’s only two of us. We couldn’t just leave all our shit on stage, so I would always pack up the stuff, pack up the van. Cary would be at the merch box, hawking the wares.”

Fast-forward a couple of years. Shovels & Rope has climbed the ladder from van to mini-RV to real-deal tour bus, complete with a small road team that includes a tour manager, a merch guy and their dog, Townes (named after Townes Van Zandt, of course). Not only have they been doing shows with Jack White, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell and Old Crow Medicine Show at many of the biggest festivals in the land, the husband-and-wife team has been headlining their own tours of 1,500-capacity clubs for more than a year (the Pink Garter Theatre holds about 450). The upcoming tour will close with their first headlining performance at the famed Ryman Auditorium on Valentine’s Day.

Swimmin’ Time was released on Dualtone Records, a Nashville-based label established as an artist-friendly home for a diverse roster of acts (including fellow Americana darlings, The Lumineers) who prefer to work outside the major label system. Setting aside the ultimate label fit, it came as a surprise (and conjured an “Attaband!” emotion from within) that Shovels & Rope produced and engineered the album on their own, at their home studio, again.

“It seems to serve us best to produce our own records at home,” Hearst told NoiseTrade. “We had always made our own records, and we like having control over that process. But since we are always traveling, it also makes sense to make records while we are ‘resting up’ at home. It’s important that we can do it on our own time, on our own dime. We think part of the magic is that the music comes straight from us, warts and all, straight to the record store racks.”

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LESLIE RYAN McKELLAR (Photographer Shovel & Ropes)

When raspy voices wrap around each other like they do when Trent and Hearst sing, there’s really no need for a producer. The instrumentation could be an acoustic guitar or a tuba. It doesn’t really matter. The mojo is already there. It’s fitting then that the duo of multi-instrumentalists — wielding and alternating simplistic accompaniment via a scaled-back drum kit, acoustic and electric guitars, and a mini keyboard — has maintained an album sound that matches their live sound. After all, the songwriting is so compelling that dense layering would only add unnecessary girth, while their emotion-over-perfection mentality on stage is modestly human.

“You’re the rudder, keeping us on track,” Hearst said to Trent during a recent interview with Rolling Stone before looking him straight in the eye and cracking into laugher. “And I’m the sail because I’m full of hot air.

“We can’t turn into dicks. 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.”

Opening the show with a kick-drum of their own is local acoustic, folk-soul duo Benyaro, which consists of singer-songwriter/guitarist/percussionist Ben Musser and upright bassist/harmony vocalist Leif Routman. Musser recently completed a score and made a cameo in an indie film, Searching For Fortune, the story of a roughneck forced to re-examine his life’s choices after receiving the news of his brother’s death.

Shovels & Rope with guest Benyaro, 9 p.m. on Friday at Pink Garter Theatre. $20. PinkGarterTheatre.com, 733-1500.

Firemen bring Marshall Tucker Band

Saturday’s Fireman’s Ball features the Marshall Tucker Band.

Saturday’s Fireman’s Ball features the Marshall Tucker Band.

It goes without saying that the Jackson Firefighters Association went all out in booking Southern country-rock legends Marshall Tucker Band for one of the longest-running fundraisers in the valley, the 74th Annual Fireman’s Ball. Though the band has only one original member in vocalist Doug Gray, there’s no denying the its historical footprint, marked by epic instrumental passages by the late lead guitarist Toy Caldwell (reference “This Ol’ Cowboy” for the goods). The band’s peak came with the million-selling 1977 album Carolina Dreams and its Top 15 single, “Heard it in a Love Song.”

A ticket to the event gives guests the chance to win this year’s grand prize — a grass-fed, fully butchered buffalo from Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat, complete with a brand-new freezer. Get there early for silent and live auctions, a gun raffle, and music from local acoustic groups Wood Smoke Rising and Shark Week.

74th Annual Fireman’s Ball with Marshall Tucker Band, 6 p.m. on Saturday at Heritage Arena. $40. JHFireAssociation.com.

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About Aaron Davis

Aaron Davis is a decade-long writer of Music Box, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, member of Screen Door Porch and Boondocks, founder/host of Songwriter’s Alley, and co-founder of The WYOmericana Caravan.

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