"Americana" is a funny descriptor to slap on Shovels & Rope's rock 'n' roll-steeped sound. "Roots music" implies a traditionalism that is nowhere to be found on their latest album, Swimmin' Time. "Southern Gothic," in the literary sense and not the dark-eyeliner sense, might be more accurate. Around the release of their breakout record, O' Be Joyful, bandmates Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent started throwing around the moniker "sloppy tonk," and that seemed to do it justice.
Still, the scrappy duo from Johns Island have become critical darlings in the Americana world. Hearst says she was honored to be recognized at the Americana Music Awards ceremony in Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium back in 2013, when the band won Emerging Artist of the Year and Song of the Year (for "Birmingham," which beat the Lumineers' ubiquitous if vacuous "Ho Hey"). But she was also left scratching her head.
"We love a lot of those artists," Hearst says, referring to the likes of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell who graced the Ryman stage that evening, "but we've always felt a tiny bit out of place and lucky to be there, like, 'You guys know that we have distorted guitars, right?' 'You guys know that we're spittin' vinegar, right?' We're not playing under the moonlight, you know, sweet all the time."
Hearst swears she only recently learned the word "twee," a common critique of the suspenders-wearing modern folkie set. It's not a label you could pin on Shovels & Rope, though. Their latest album features songs about drug addiction, child abuse, and watery armageddon, and the sound is harder-edged than ever.
"The funny thing about it is in our minds we were always more of a rock 'n' roll band, but basically we're folk songwriters with a rock 'n' roll band," Hearst says. "We pay a lot of attention to our lyrics and our storytelling, but the way we want to present ourselves is definitely a little bit saltier and a little bit bloodier and a little bit chewier."
One decidedly non-folk instrument that's become part of the Shovels & Rope repertoire is a raunchy, heavily distorted keyboard synthesizer. Trent says they started incorporating it in live shows after the release of O' Be Joyful, which featured crunchy guitars and guest horns. Since it was just the two of them out on the road (and still is), they brought along a keyboard that either of them could play one-handed while working drum duty.
"We sort of concocted that sound to fill up some of the space and to play those lines live," Trent says. "It was one of the only ways that we could do it, and it started just sort of becoming part of our sound, and as things progressed, we used it as a building instrument." The sound features heavily on the Swimmin' Time songs "Evil" and "Ohio," pushing the latter into some sort of seedy neo-Vaudevillian territory as Hearst, playing the role of a low-down trickster, boasts about making "a decent living off of suckers from Ohio."
Swimmin' Time was recorded — like the last album— in the band's home studio without the help of a producer.
"Even if we could afford studio time, the time itself didn't exist," Hearst says. "Our touring schedule never allows us to hole up in a studio because basically touring is the only way we eat. There's not a lot of record money." Besides, she says, she and her husband are opinionated enough without a third party entering the equation.
"We're not really looking for anybody else's opinion at this point," Trent says.
While the band's touring schedule has been relentless since 2012, Swimmin' Time bears the watermarks of home, including a bevy of songs about the life aquatic: "Fish Assassin" is an ode to Hearst's father, a river fisherman who calls himself by the title; "Stono River Blues" features a river where a South Carolina slave rebellion commenced in 1793; the haunting album closer "Thresher" pays homage to the 1963 sinking of the U.S. Navy submarine USS Thresher off the coast of Boston and its "slow pirouette into the arms of the ocean floor." Trent says he started researching the Thresher after hearing about it in a History Channel special at a hotel on tour. "I just went to the library and sort of researched it and tried to give it a song," he says. Since recording the song he says he's received kind notes from a few descendants of the ship's crew.
Trent and Hearst say they didn't set out to record such a water-logged set of songs, but the theme is unavoidable on the album. Hearst says the title track had been in the works since she returned to a childhood vacation spot in the Florida panhandle five years ago and saw that it had become saturated with development. The song that came out of that experience is belied by its cheery title, with reverberating bass drums pounding out a backing track to an apocalyptic prophecy: "You'll be the one drownin' when it's swimmin' time / I can see it comin'."
"I thought, 'There's no way the beach can sustain this kind of development,' and how sad it would be. And even before Katrina I had that song idea," Hearst says. "But then over the years, when we bought a house on Johns Island, we'd cross two or three rivers to get home every day, and you become really aware of the tide ... It's just on my mind."