As Shovels and Rope, the wife-and-husband duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, like to set up on stage amid an array of small amps, vintage guitars, shakers, and a three-piece ramshackle junkyard drum kit. Their warped bass drum resembles a slightly flat truck tire. It's a modest setting, but the music they make within it transcends the ragged scenery.
"We figured things out as we went," Trent says of their setup. "Initially, we didn't even have a kick drum on the stage. We were still tapping a tambourine on the floor with our feet. It was the both of us, playing guitars and harmonicas, but we tried to keep things fresh along the way, letting it evolve the way it evolved."
The City Paper spoke with Hearst and Trent by phone last week, in the middle of a two-month-long cross-country jaunt with Nashville country singer Jonny Corndog. They'd just played at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Ga., the night before, and both were hustling to brush their teeth and pack up at a Best Western before taking off for another gig across the state in Albany.
"We're holding up pretty well, and the shows are definitely getting better," Trent reports. "I think the work that we've put into writing and performing is paying off. More people seem to be aware us, and more people are coming out to shows."
Only a few years ago, Trent and Hearst were working solo performers making a living off of their own originals and solo releases, but as Shovels and Rope took shape, they added clever renditions of country-blues, obscure rockabilly, Western swing, and fiery gospel gems. The musical partnership eventually blossomed into a serious venture.
Each songwriter put out solo discs in 2010; Hearst's five-song EP Are You Ready to Die was a raucous romp, while Trent's 11-song The Winner had a blues/Americana vibe.
"It's become a marriage of styles," Hearst says. "Things used to be a more disjointed give-and-take."
Later that year, HBO's vampire series True Blood snagged Hearst's spooky song "Hells Bells" for an episode's closing credits. The tune caught the ear of many who'd never heard of her or Shovels and Rope before.
As a duo, their recordings, concerts, and videos have recently earned high marks among critics and fans across the Southeast. Their appearance at the 2012 South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, generated buzz, while zine pundits and radio personalities have sung their praises all year.
This season, Hearst and Trent are nearly ready to release a new self-produced album titled O' Be Joyful (due in late July on the Dual Tone label). As they prepare for the release, they seem more harmonious — musically and emotionally — than ever before. Sneak previews of the new songs remind the listener that Hearst is blessed with a rich voice that can easily lilt from gentle and luxurious to raspy and smoky. Trent's sturdy harmonies only complement and strengthen Hearst's lead. The music demonstrates a more collaborative songwriting approach than anything they've worked on previously.
"We sang together in bars for two years before we even left town," Hearst says. "By living, working, and breathing together in such close proximity on the road every day, we've been able to sound and operate like one person when we're on. I've consciously been aware of developing that musical conversation between us. Now I am aware of how cool it is to transition from one thing to another — or to transform songs that were on our own albums into something new."
Trent agrees with his wife about the joint effort, although he says they never intentionally aimed for the blend of styles that comprise O' Be Joyful. "We did not have a grand plan at all," he says. "Two years ago, we were just trying to make money at gigs and work on new music together. It just naturally happened."
Shovels and Rope hit the road hard last year, taking advantage of opportunities to go out on several long tours supporting some bigger acts. The road trips included lengthy stints with Hayes Carll, the Felice Brothers, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, and Butch Walker. Out on their own, they ventured into big cities, college towns, and rural listening rooms across the Southeast. Over the winter and spring, they expanded their scope even farther, venturing as far west as San Antonio, as far north as Portland, Maine, and as far south as New Orleans.
"Since we left, we've toured with storytellers, spent a month singing all over central Texas in some crazy little honky-tonks and dives, and saw dear friends marry by the Mississippi River on a Mardi Gras afternoon," Hearst says. "We also played a show on Willie Nelson's ranch for elderly horses called Luck Texas during our South by Southwest tour-cation."
According to Hearst, new audiences have reacted positively to their twangy sound and junk-pile stage show, save for the occasionally belligerent drunk in the crowd. "We almost got into a big fight with drunk guy in Chattanooga not too long ago," she remembers. "But most of the time, people seem to like us. Even some of the people who seem to hate our set while we're playing show up smiling in the merch line afterward. You never know."
Shovels and Rope would still rather sweat it out on their own terms in their well-worn GMC van and their modest home studio than travel and record in extravagance and comfort under someone else's watch and budget. Hearst and Trent are less interested in signing a big contract or landing high-dollar gigs than in creating and fine-tuning their rich, melodic repertoire and performing for honest audiences around the country.
The duo haven't performed a headlining show in their hometown since early February. They have two more weeks on the road before coming to Charleston for a 10-day rest, after which they'll pack their gear and climb back into their van again for two months' worth of shows around the Southeast. Hearst and her husband are ready for a lengthy break.
"I'm hungry to get back home, quiet down, and cultivate this next batch of songs," she says. "We've come to realize that it takes a damn long time to put a record out, and when it comes out, you can already have another batch ready to record. Michael and I both have a ton of ideas. On the road, if you're smart enough to write those down, you come home in pretty good shape."