Before watching the The Ballad of Shovels and Rope, the documentary that follows Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent on their rise to stardom, I hadn't been a huge Shovels & Rope fan. Don't get me wrong, I hummed along to "Birmingham" and rooted for them to do well — as every Charlestonian should — but that was the extent of it.
But then I saw The Ballad of Shovels and Rope, director Jace Freeman's documentary. And I drank the ShoRo Kool-Aid. Perhaps it was seeing Hearst blast a bar-goer for touching her van and threatening to kill the next person who dared lay a finger on what was not only the duo's vehicle but their home on the road. Or watching the ever-quiet Trent hang out on the beach with his friends casually discussing scrapping the tracks the singers had laid down, knowing he and Cary Ann could do better.
- Courtesy The Moving Picture Boys
Actually, my new-found love for Shovels & Rope is owed almost entirely to the way the documentary was made. Shot in 2011, Ballad did what a doc should do: let audiences into the personal, the everyday, the reality of Shovels & Rope without seeming invasive.
The Kickstarter-funded film follows the husband-and-wife team as they tour the country and work on their O' Be Joyful album. What starts as a three-month-long project quickly becomes a more ambitious affair, as the filmmakers follow the band as they rise from playing the Pour House to performing at the Americana Music Awards in 2013. Without any voice-over, the film manages to flow over the touring period without ever becoming monotonous, dull, or boring, which it could have easily done as viewers are taken on a tour of small venues across the U.S., day in and day out. Director Freeman provides glimpses into the duo's lives — from Hearst writing the hit song "Birmingham" on the couple's Johns Island porch to eating Chips Ahoy and drinking Newcastle in a Walmart parking lot after a gig to their performance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
That's not to say the film is without flaws. The Nashville-based Moving Picture Boys-produced film has its shaky moments, like when the couple decides if they should take a record deal over breakfast at a cafe. It's as if the cameraman doesn't know where to focus, doesn't want to intrude too much and so he moves the camera from Hearst to a coffee mug to Trent to a plate of hash browns back to Trent and back to a coffee mug. As Shovels & Rope try to decide on their future, the documentary decides to behave like a fidgety child watching their parents make a life-altering decision. The shots of the coffee mug were the equivalent of the child staring down at his shoes to avoid eye contact. It shows timidity on Freeman's part — never a good trait for a documentarian.
- Courtesy The Moving Picture Boys
But despite these few moments, viewers are left with a lasting impression of this hardworking band. In the end, Ballad shows how a little bit of faith can go a long way. Surely no one involved in the project had any concrete proof they were documenting a band's breakthrough, but that's what happened — and it's a faith that not only Hearst and Trent have in each other, but Freeman and co-writer Sean Clarke have in the Lowcountry couple.
The Ballad of Shovels & Rope doesn't have a major distributor, but the flick will screen at the Terrace Theater (1956-D Maybank Hwy.) for one week only starting Fri. Sept. 12. For more information visit, terracetheater.com or call (843) 762-4247.