These are the best of times for the Americana super duo Shovels and Rope. In a span of five years, the husband and wife team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have snatched national prominence from the jaws of certain obscurity using little more than a couple of beat up drums and two old guitars. If there ever was a story of outsider success over long shot odds by musicians (in the truest sense of the word) it can be found in the colorful ballad of Shovels and Rope. And if this is to be a fairy tale complete with all the classic elements — love at first sight, years of anguished separation, a glorious reunion, and finally the triumph of good over evil — then perhaps a bit of back story is in order.
Before Shovels and Rope, Trent had been something of a country troubadour. Southern Gothic in its modern sense, Trent’s solo LPs detail the hopeless and hungry ambition of one come up from the dirt. Trent composed steady-handed, minor-keyed murder ballads in the fine tradition of the Appalachian honor code. His frank lyrics about drug abuse and southern pine detailed in unforced phrasing the rough shod path of any young man artistically isolated in this digital age. Trent could have done well for himself in this vein, except one summer night in the neon depths of a Savannah rotgut he stumbled across the path of Cary Ann Hearst.
Hearst’s early work is characterized by a Stevie Nicks type cocaine and witchcraft attack on songwriting. Whether it be through her magnetic stage presence or soaring vocals, she casts spells on her audience. A natural charmer, Hearst is the type of girl who could easily drink any rowdy under the table before driving him home to put his sorry ass in bed. Both sweet and condescending in honey-toned hues, she could call the roughest rounder “darling” and have him running. It’s little wonder Trent fell irreparably for this beauty.
Water finds its own level, but for various reasons fate would not be satisfied for some time. The two artists went about their separate careers finding modest success in each until necessity drew them back together. Their first release, 2008’s Shovels and Rope was more a collaborative release than the implementation of a group, but critical response was clamorous. Though the new couple were still recording videos for Youtube in their touring van and opening for regional acts across the states, the self-titled debut was a record hard to ignore.
The first indication that Shovels and Rope were more than just a passing sensation came with their second release, 2012’s O’ Be Joyful. A one-off great listen isn’t that rare. The wheat separates from the chaff with consistency. O’ Be Joyful wasn’t an extension of earlier work like some sort of Shovels and Rope Part II. The self-titled collaboration was desultory to a fine degree, whereas O’ Be Joyful was exactly what the title would indicate — an upbeat, rollicking mania to counter the previous depression. Critical opinion, however fanatic, made little difference as the group began playing national festivals, headlining their own tours and appearing on major network night shows.
Enter the final installation of this three-part harmony. The newest release, Swimmin’ Time, out via Dualtone, is the culmination of everything that makes Shovels and Rope the most exciting Americana act in recent years. There is a great back story there, certainly, but any passionate romance is predicate upon reciprocation. While both musicians could’ve done quite fine in their own right, it is only by reinforcing each other’s strength while simultaneously propping up the others weaknesses that together they create the tour-de-force that Shovels and Rope have become. Swimmin’ Time is the product of our generation’s June Carter and Johnny Cash after the messy past has been laid to rest. It may not be readily apparent yet, but history will prove it so.
Perhaps due to lowland Carolina origins, water figures heavily throughout Swimmin’ Time. Like the introduction to an early McMurtry or McCarthy novel, there is something both timeless and incredibly immediate to songs concerning the ebb and flow of the modern condition. In our poverty we are still rich, yet despite our liberty we are shackled by our passions, excesses and egos. Add to that the flotsam and jetsam of the music industry and Swimmin’ Time becomes an exciting album to navigate. All the more when one considers the type of music Shovels and Rope prefer to play is far from popular by modern tastes. Delta blues, finger picking, rockabilly, cut-throat narratives all via acoustic instrumentation, Shovels and Rope are at the forefront of making critical again types of music that have long since seen their heyday. You can build around your heart a wall but it’s best to embrace the modern conveniences of this digital age with style, wit and grace. Memory not forsaken, Swimmin’ Time combines the most frustrated everyman singalong lyrics of this new Depression with modern post production techniques.
In keeping with the DIY aspects of past albums Swimmin’ Time was recorded and mastered in house, literally at the couple’s home with post production work accomplished again by Trent. Where Swimmin’ Time sets itself apart from past records is the abundance of sonic miasma and layered supporting instrumentation. Shovels and Rope have never sounded so lush, especially on raunchstomp tracks like “Evil” and “Ohio”, or the doo-wop ’50s throwback, “Coping Mechanism”.
In bridging the past to the present, Shovels and Rope have cut a path into the future. Early album standout “Evil” references “another victim of the mortgage bubble credit pop”. Later in the album, in the midst of pixie muted Dixieland opulence, the narrator glories over making a good living “offa suckers in Ohio”. Swimmin’ Time showcases the best of both old and new music, the idealized past and the disgusting, bloody, senseless present. Lyrics to make the soul shake loose from out of your chest meet harmonies that will convert new audiences through pure emotive conviction. Is this article a bit romanticized? You’re goddamn right it is. There isn’t too much praise by either critic or publication these days that isn’t paid for in some way. These words are free.