As a writer who covers predominately alt-country, Americana, and folk music, I say to my shame that I didn’t know who Shovels & Rope were until they won Best Song and Best Upcoming Artist last month at the 2013 Americana Awards. Maybe you don’t either, so let me introduce you.
Shovels & Rope is the alt-country project of Charleston, SC based husband and wife duo, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. They’ve made the rounds—touring with the likes of Hayes Carll, Justin Townes Earle, and the Dave Matthews Band—and have gained a loyal following with their own intelligent, punky, southern, rock n’ roll, country sound. In late 2012 Trent and Hearst released their second LP, O’ Be Joyful, and last month hauled in some unexpected Americana awards. The couple beat out the well-favored Lumineers for the Best New Song award with their first single, ‘Birmingham’.
Shovels & Rope have developed a sound that draws from the well of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Cramps, and The Clash as much as from Hank Williams, old hymns, and Townes Van Zant. In an interview with Garden and Gun, Michael Hearst says that he grew up “listening to a lot of Nirvana and old country, trying to figure out how to blend the two”. The outcome is an eccentric, danceable sound that seems much bigger than a husband and wife duo playing a small, old drum set and an acoustic guitar that comes with a unique, rowdy, fascinating live performance.
While catching a host of “Johnny and June” comparisons, the couple likes to talk about folks like Elvis Costello and The Cramps as major influences. The raw country feel of their songs blends effortlessly with their punk tendencies, almost like an Appalachian Uncle Tupelo. Also blended throughout Shovels & Rope’s sound is a pervasive gospel influence that fits beautifully into their unique sound.
My first hearing of “Birmingham” was a powerful experience. It usually takes me a few listens to decide if I really like a sound or not, but “Birmingham” had me in tears by the second chorus. Hearst’s scratchy, folksy vocals and Trent’s freight-train drumming/maracas drew me in quick, and the chorus – the first two lines of the old hymn “Rock of Ages” – knocked me flat. “Birmingham” spent a solid week on repeat. The use of “Rock of Ages” in “Birmingham” may be more about Hearst & Trent’s relationship than anything else, but that’s okay. There is something powerful, if not scared about the whole album. The gritty, distortion-heavy track “Hail, Hail” starts with a brilliant spin on Chuck Berry’s “School Days” that holds a tongue-in-cheek mirror to what could only be called “idolatry”:
“Hail, hail Rock ‘n Roll/ Hail, hail Rock ‘n Roll/ Hail, hail Rock ‘n Roll I loved you til you slit my throat and swallowed me whole/ Now I’m a bad, bad boy with a selfish little soul/ Rock ‘n Roll”
God’s law, God’s grace and God’s presence are all themes that mesh right in with the old time country and punk rock roots. These transcendent themes give Shovels & Rope’s down home, tough, gritty sound a weighty, even moving quality.
Regardless of the intention behind Shovels & Rope’s spiritual aesthetics, they are present throughout. Maybe orthodox Christianity isn’t in the forefront of the minds of Trent and Hearst, but somewhere due east of the Cumberland Gap, the weird, honest, punk rock world of Shovels & Rope is very real.