On the road with Shovels & Rope
There’s a moment in the 2014 documentary The Ballad of Shovels and Rope when Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst sit at a kitchen table and muse upon what success might bring. “I’d like to see the world… and have it be paid for by a song,” Hearst says. “The ultimate goal is to keep on being able to do it, keep on liking to do it, so we don’t have to do something else to be happy.”
Trent agrees. “It’d be nice to make a living at it,” he adds, “maybe have some rug rats; curtain climbers.” Hearst smiles beatifically in response, her back to a wall decorated with hand drawn band logos and photos from the road.
With tenacity, it all came true.
The scene was from 2010; two years later, the duo’s debut album O’ Be Joyful was released, and the autobiographical “Birmingham” helped bring their dream to life. The tune won Song of The Year at the 2013 Americana Music Awards; it depicts the desire required to break through in a grave new world of streams and social media. “Making something out of nothing with a scratcher and our hope,” they sing, “with two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”
It was hardscrabble poetry, with a finger on the pulse of profound realities contained in ordinary struggles.
Shovels & Rope have since made three studio albums. The last two, 2016’s Little Seeds and the newly released By Blood, reflect their lives as parents to a three-old daughter and newborn son. One song on the new LP tells the story of a magical horse reuniting torn apart families; “C’mon Utah” will become a children’s book later this year.
With prescience typical for a duo that filmed its rise while one of them still had a day job, the tune came before news of border camps and cages caught the public eye. “Michael brought that song to the pile really early in the writing process,” Hearst said during a recent joint interview. “At the time there wasn’t an epidemic of families being separated from their children.”
In the futuristic tale, a wall has been built and fallen; in its wake, the lost wander the rubble looking for loved ones. “Our vision was that it would be a story that folks would be telling their kids around a campfire,” Hearst continued. “To ease their anxiety in the night, like, ‘don’t worry, there’s this magic horse… he knows how to find who you’re looking for.’”
Puerto Rican artist Julio Cotto Rivera is illustrating the book. “His drawings are awesome, unique – extreme symbolism,” Hearst said. “It’s suitable to read to children but more like an art book or graphic novelette… in theory it will be out before the end of the summer.”
Currently, the duo are opening for Tedeschi Trucks Band as part of their annual Wheels of Soul tour. Michael and Cary Ann’s kids are with them on the bus, with a nanny. “The first one broke us in the saddle pretty well, so two hasn’t been a huge change on the road,” Hearst said when asked how it was going. “It’s more interesting at home because we don’t have any help.”
That last point was felt during recording of By Blood. To better focus, the two built a separate studio outside their house.
“It was our responsibility to ourselves,” Trent said. “The last record was a big time learning experience. With Little Seeds, we had a little person for the first time in our house, and the scheduling was a little bit jarring… We thought, ‘oh, yeah, we’ll just have a neighbor come over and they’ll hold the baby for two hours while we go up and cut the vocals.’ Just because the neighbor is holding the baby doesn’t mean that the baby isn’t screaming in the next room.”
“The first one was a crier,” Hearst interjected. “We should predicate.”
“Anyway,” Trent continued, “we’ve gotten a little bit savvy over the past few years and figured out how to balance regular lives with making music. It’s tricky, but totally doable.”
When: Saturday, July 13, 7 p.m.
Wheels of Soul 2019
Where: Bank of NH Pavilion, 72 Meadowbrook Lane, Gilford
More: $39.75 – $135.75 at banknhpavilion.com